South Ossetia: the plaything of Russia - or Georgia?

The region is a political black hole, reports Tim Whewell

Entering South Ossetia is like falling into a political black hole. At the top of a twisting, heavily wooded gorge, just below the highest ridge of the Caucasus chain, you leave Russia through a series of checkpoints, steel gates and customs controls. Your passport is stamped, your boots are inspected. And then you arrive - nowhere. When I went through some weeks ago, there was no one to check my papers or welcome me to one of the world's newest independent nations. There was just the yawning black entrance to the 4km-long Roki Tunnel, famous now as the route the Russian army took to invade Georgia during the five-day war in August that sparked the worst crisis in east-west relations for nearly 30 years.

As far as almost the whole of the rest of the world is concerned, South Ossetia is still simply part of Georgia. Its statehood is recognised only by Russia, Nicaragua and Somalia. It is hard to take it seriously as an independent state. Even before the war, it had only 70,000 people - and an economy based principally on smuggling. Now, after the largely forced departure of almost all its ethnic Georgian inhabitants, the population may be closer to 50,000. And half of them live in one small town of mouldering and, since August, shell-blasted apartment blocks - the capital, Tskhinvali.

It is easy to think of those people as mere playthings of Russia, a useful excuse for meddling in the affairs of a state - Georgia - whose president, Mikhail Saakashvili, the Kremlin loathes. Vladimir Putin declared recently he'd like to "hang him by the balls". Over the past few years, Russia has handed out passports to South Ossetians. It helpfully allowed some junior Russian officials to become ministers in the South Ossetian government. It devoted considerable efforts to improving facilities for its 500 peacekeepers in the territory. And in August it claimed - with huge hyperbole - that it was being forced to invade Georgia to stop a "genocide" of Ossetians and rescue the survivors in a town that the Russian media reported had been razed to the ground.

Reach Tskhinvali and you find a place that, for all the gaping holes in walls and roofs, is still largely standing and working. On a first visit, it is hard not to be more shocked by what has happened to the ethnic Georgian villages on the edge of the town. After revenge attacks by Ossetian militias since the war, they are collections of burnt-out shells, some houses apparently even bulldozed by the authorities.

The true extent of Ossetian suffering has been much harder to fathom. Even the territory's main independent human rights group has been surprisingly slow to document civilian deaths during the fighting. The local prosecutor's office puts the number at about 150, while the Russian judicial authorities are investigating about 350 cases.

But what seems increasingly clear from eyewitness testimony and examination of the destruction is that a considerable number of the deaths were caused by Georgia's use, in its initial attack on Tskhinvali, of notoriously inaccurate Grad rockets and of tank shells which, in some cases, were apparently fired directly into residential apartments. Now it is also becoming clear that those western nations that have given such strong diplomatic backing to Georgia since the war probably knew all along about the nature of that assault.

"It was an indiscriminate attack on a civilian town," Ryan Grist, the man who then headed the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's mission to Georgia, told me recently. Grist - who resigned from the OSCE shortly afterwards - says he relayed back to his organisation reports from monitors in Tskhinvali who saw, on the first night of the Georgian attack, how "40 to 50 shells landed close to their office: nowhere near any target".

Georgia denies ever deliberately targeting civilians - but President Saakashvili himself is now calling for an investigation into all the circumstances of the war, including Georgia's actions. And the conflict has reinforced the determination of France, Germany and some other western European nations to ensure Georgia is not given a green light to join Nato in the foreseeable future.

What's less clear is what anyone outside Russia can now do for the Ossetians. Some in Tskhinvali want to become part of the Russian Federation. Others insist on their independence - supported by large amounts of Russian cash. But no one I met was prepared to consider negotiations with Georgia. This tiny territory, it seems, is likely to remain a dangerously unstable black hole for a long time to come.

Tim Whewell is a correspondent for BBC Newsnight and Radio 4