Russia sends cash, builders to S. Ossetia

TSKHINVALI, Georgia - September 3, 2008 - Russian builder Igor Semyonov is proud just to be a part of the substantial reconstruction effort his country is funding.

Semyonov stood in the center of what is now called Three Tank Square, where the scorched remains of Georgian tanks are surrounded by battle-scarred buildings including one with a tank turret sitting on its front steps.

"It will be more beautiful than ever," the he promised as he worked to reconstruct a shattered labor union headquarters.

Moscow is matching in South Ossetia what the U.S. and its allies are doing in Georgia, pouring in aid to support its ally along the new confrontation line that has grown up between Russia and the West.

Russian authorities have dispatched 500 construction workers to repair and rebuild scores of damaged or destroyed administrative buildings and schools, as well as the region's main hospital in Tskhinvali. It's a massive effort made possible by Russia's oil-fueled economic resurgence.

Znaur Gassiyev, speaker of South Ossetia's legislature, said it will cost $400 million to repair the destruction.

In addition to the construction effort, South Ossetian Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev said that Russia has promised to pay South Ossetians up to $2,000 each in compensation for war damage.

Russia has provided financial, military and political support to South Ossetia, as well as another separatist-held Georgian territory, Abkhazia, since the early 1990s. Last year alone, Russia spent an estimated $66 million in subsidies for South Ossetia, Gassiyev said.

The territory has no economy of its own and Russian subsidies are its only source of income, officials here said.

Russia is the only country to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations. Over the next few years, many expect Moscow formally to annex one or both of them - calling their citizens victims of Georgian aggression.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to do.

Both areas bear the scars of earlier conflicts from the 1990s, and both show the ravages of struggling for nearly two decades with barely functioning economies. Tskhinvali's newest apartment building was built in 1989, a few years before the region sank into the bloody chaos of its first separatist war.

A Georgian artillery shell hit the regional prison during the latest fighting, prompting its warden to open the gates and let all inmates run free. Now prison chief Valentin Gobozov is looking to Moscow to pay for the repairs.

"I hope that Russia will come to our rescue," he said. The Kremlin isn't the only source of reconstruction aid. The city of Moscow has promised to build a new residential area on Tskhinvali's northern outskirts - to be named Moskovsky.

Ethnic Ossetians are grateful for the support.

"Together with united Russia!" declares a sign painted on a fence. "Thank you, Russia!" trumpets another.

But Tskhinvali residents, many of whom live in half-shattered houses, are increasingly impatient about receiving their promised compensation. A disappointed Madina Ikoyeva, 48, shows a reporter what she has received so far: a box of spaghetti with a Russian flag.

"We have got no other aid, and I have been begging for mattresses and blankets for a week," she said, huddling amid the rubble in a corner of her half-destroyed house.

Ikoyeva said her husband was killed on the first day of fighting as he sought shelter for his family. She fled to neighbors' basement with her daughter and two young granddaughters.

Although the reconstruction of Tskhinvali has begun, it will take part without the ethnic Georgians who lived here before the war in August. Almost all Georgians fled in the aftermath of the fighting, and many ethnic Ossetians don't want them to return.

"I hate the Georgians, there is no place for them here," said the 69-year old Sonya Gagloyeva, who lives in a tent because her house was ruined in the fighting.

Her grandson, Alan Kadzhayev brought her a trolley filled with wooden panels, pillows and half-broken pottery from the nearby ethnic Georgian village of Prisi. Asked whether he stole the items, he said: "Everyone has been doing it."

"These things are nothing compared to what I lost, look at my ruined house," Gagloyeva snapped.

Both Russian troops and local authorities have turned a blind eye to the extensive looting and burning of ethnic Georgian homes. David Sanakoyev, South Ossetia's human rights ombudsman, even says the destruction of Georgian homes is understandable.

"Look at what they have done to Tskhinvali!" Sanakoyev said. "Now the time has come to even the score."

Still, some Ossetians are uncomfortable with the postwar lawlessness.

"Ossetians have had trouble maintaining order in the city," admitted Zarema Kukoeva, a 40-year old drug store clerk. "Shooting and robberies are going on all around. But the main thing is that my children will live in an Ossetia that will be independent from Georgia."

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