"We can't escape each other – neither Ossetia, nor Russia, nor Georgia, nor Abkhazia" - Interview with Ruslan Totrov and Alik Pukhati

Caucasus Map, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia

Ekho Kavkaza (Prague) — The August war of 15 years ago didn't just spark a military confrontation—it ignited a fierce battle in the realm of information. Now, 15 years later, many experts assert that the narratives about the 2008 war are changing before our eyes, particularly due to the war in Ukraine. This shift occurs despite the EU commission, under the guidance of Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, having formally investigated and detailed the circumstances of the August war. We delve into this information war and the reality of events with journalist Ruslan Totrov and blogger Alik Pukhati.

Alik, let's begin with a foundational query: where were you, and what memories do you have of the onset of the war on August 7th?

Alik Pukhati, Ossetian blogger
Alik Pukhati

Alik Pukhati: That day stands out to me. I had just returned to Vladikavkaz from Moscow and had been there for a mere 2-3 days. The memory is sharp: rain was pouring when I got home in the evening. Near midnight, the news broadcasted the jarring revelation that Tskhinval was under intense bombardment. The situation felt especially grave, given that several of my family members—my sisters and aunts—had recently travelled to Tskhinval. My own trip was slated for the 8th or 9th, but I decided to delay for a few more days.

And your family was in Tskhinval during the conflict?

Alik Pukhati: Yes, they were there. The news segments, particularly on Russian channels, painted a harrowing picture. Witnessing the barrage of missiles gave an impression that Tskhinval had been utterly razed and its residents obliterated. So, we were in a state of panic.

There's a prevailing narrative regarding the war, especially its informational aspect, suggesting that most civilians had been evacuated, leaving few behind. How would you address this claim?

Alik Pukhati: That's a lie. Since the turn of the millennium, every summer saw skirmishes between Georgia and South Ossetia. Somehow, everyone forgets the 2004 war, when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power and tried to suddenly solve the "Ossetian problem," as they call it. After that, from 2004 onwards, every year there was an escalation, and every year small children were sent to Vladikavkaz camps just in case, but only a small group – 100 children, 200 children, but no more. So, when they talk about some kind of massive evacuation, it simply wasn't there. People from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, who originally came from Tskhinval, arrived there in summer to relax, as happens every year. They bring families to their ancestral homeland. There were many people there. Probably more than there were in May.

You're quite active in the English-language Twitter [ @rajdianos - now X.com -ed.]. Why did you decide to address this audience? Do you think the world still doesn't know something about this war?

Alik Pukhati: In my view, the 2008 conflict is absolutely portrayed in black and white in the West, despite the EU report which states who attacked first. In my opinion, the situation with any war is this: whoever attacks first is to blame, and the EU report clearly shows who attacked first and who started bombing sleeping people in a peaceful city.

Open hostilities began with a large-scale Georgian military operation against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, launched in athe night of 7 to 8 August 2008. Operations started with a massive Georgian artillery attack. At the very outset of the operation the Commander of the Georgian contingent to the Joint Peacekeeping Forces (JPKF), Brigadier General Mamuka Kurashvili, stated that the operation was aimed at restoring the constitutional order in the territory of South Ossetia. Somewhat later the Georgian side refuted Mamuka Kurashvili's statement as unauthorised and invoked the countering of an alleged Russian invasion as justification of the operation.

—  Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia - [Heidi] "Tagliavini report".

Some might argue that there were provocations, and this attack was provoked.

Alik Pukhati: I would say that, undoubtedly, there are always provocations from both sides along the tension lines. These can be organised by the conflicting parties, they can be organised by third parties, or they can happen by chance, but the one who started a large-scale military operation, began bombing civilians, is the one who started the war. As I understand, in international law this is the responsibility for the war. In my view, there can be no other interpretation. And in the West, unfortunately, people have a poor understanding of the 2008 conflict. This is not an isolated conflict that occurred in 2008 – it's a sequence of events, centuries of people's struggle for the right to be free. My clan, my surname – Pukhaev in Russian, Pukhati in Ossetian – has been fighting for the right to be human, to not be second-class citizens, against the Georgian state for 300 years.

Every year since 1800, residents of South Ossetia have risen against Georgian authority. So, 2008 is just one event in a series of such stories: there was 2004, there was 1990 when my family and I also fled from Tskhinval, while my elder brother and father stayed to defend our home; there was 1920 – a massive exodus, migration of people from South Ossetia to the north, five thousand people died.

Georgian army rocket batteries firing on Ossetian cities and villages.
Georgian army rocket batteries fired on the Ossetian city of Tskhinval and surrounding villages.

You see, the problem with the Western world is that, despite the anti-colonial narrative, which is now so trendy among left and left-Marxist views, the history of the entire non-European, non-American world is like a dark spot for them – i.e., Asian, African, Caucasian nations' histories didn't exist until Europeans arrived. And this approach applies to the Ossetians as well. We have a vast, complex history of relations with the Georgian state, and 2008 is just a grain of sand in a series of bloody events, in a series of attempts to exterminate the Ossetian people, the Abkhazian people, to assimilate our nations just as other Georgian nations were assimilated.

We pose a challenge to Georgia's imperial ambitions. Regrettably, both Ossetia and Abkhazia significantly hinder the realization of the 'mini empire' vision as outlined by Andrei Sakharov [In 1989 at the start of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict the late Academician Andrei Sakharov in one of his last articles called Georgia a ‘mini-empire’ (Ogonёk 1989, 31). -ed.] . This issue has been consistently raised. Don't just take my word for it, given I'm a party to this conflict. One only needs to refer to the diaries of Valiko Djugeli, who documented the events of 1920, candidly discussing the 'Ossetian problem' and its resolution. To those championing anti-colonialism, the histories of Ossetia and Abkhazia might cast Georgia in a new light, revealing its colonialist policies towards our people – often enabled by Russian weaponry. Recall the punitive expeditions of General Abkhazov and General Rennenkampf, both instigated by Georgian elites against Ossetians. The West is, unfortunately, largely unaware of this backstory. It may not fit current narratives, or perhaps it's overlooked because it's deemed irrelevant. Alternatively, our Ossetian state and society might be falling short in highlighting it.

Ruslan, shifting our focus from the annals of history to the more recent past of 2008, there was a prevailing sentiment in South Ossetian society that they had finally embraced lasting peace, with no looming threats. However, a mere 15 years post the August war, South Ossetians find themselves in the line of fire yet again—this time in Ukraine. How did we arrive at this juncture?

Ruslan Totrov
Ruslan Totrov

Ruslan Totrov: In my perspective, South Ossetia finds itself, and I stress this characterization, as a virtual hostage to the Russian Federation. This stems from Russia's recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state. Beyond mere acknowledgment, Russia underpins not only South Ossetia's sovereignty but also its financial framework. Although South Ossetia holds strategic geographical significance for Russia in the Caucasus, this alone necessitates the sustenance of its sovereignty, which in turn is compensated through financial means. I consistently emphasise that invoking notions of benevolence or, even more so, friendship in political dynamics is a misdirection. What we're observing is Russia leveraging its ability to station its military base in South Ossetia and, as a quid pro quo, offering recognition of sovereignty and substantial financial support, making up a significant portion of Alania's state budget.

However, the Ossetian ethos is deeply rooted in a potent, and at times, I'd argue, an overly intensified sense of nationalism. This profound, and in my view, exaggerated allegiance to Russian statehood has led to... Now, to specify, when I mention Ossetians, I'm predominantly referring to what I term as the 'state' or 'professional' Ossetians, and subsequently, the broader populace. Within the Ossetian psyche lies a prevailing sentiment of indebtedness to Russia—a stance with which I fundamentally and resolutely disagree. This sentiment manifests in their marked participation in the Ukrainian conflict.

+ Remarks on the Georgian – Russian conflict of August 2008 and on Abkhazia (1995), by John Colarusso
+ The view from Abkhazia of South Ossetia ablaze, by Paula Garb
+ "Saakashvili wanted to begin with Abkhazia" - Opinion on the August 2008 War, by Inal Khashig
+ Memorial Event Commemorates the 15th Anniversary of the 2008 War in Sukhum

Is there a discussion in society, which we don't see in the information field for obvious reasons – are there different perceptions of this war?

Ruslan Totrov: Of course, there are discussions. Another question: you and I understand that living in South Ossetia today is roughly the same as living in Russia in terms of personal safety regarding any war-related topic. Therefore, naturally, no public opinion polls, scientific or even quasi-scientific, are conducted. We understand that from the standpoint of simple logic, of course, there are different opinions. But it's clear that people won't openly express a viewpoint opposing the rather aggressive majority today, so if you expect any mass anti-war demonstrations in Ossetia, there won't be any, just as there won't be any in Russia. We're not counting occasional, absolutely insignificant outbursts.

How does the war in Ukraine in general affect the way people talk about August 2008 today? Do you share the opinion of some experts who note that the sides are trying to rewrite this history?

Ruslan Totrov: I believe that the war in Ukraine deals a very severe, serious geopolitical blow to South Ossetia and to the statehood of our small country primarily. The thing is that with the onset... Let's be fair: of course, not with the onset of military operations, but even slightly earlier, after Crimea, after the whole story with other Ukrainian territories, South Ossetia began to be used in official rhetoric along with Lugansk, Donbass, Donetsk – you see?

Consequently, South Ossetia's status in this official rhetoric was significantly diminished. To me, the war in Ukraine deals a severe image blow to us, to South Ossetia, because we are already fighting, in terms of information, against forces vastly superior to us. But here, by becoming hostages to the policies of the Russian Federation, official South Ossetia now directly and unequivocally supports Russian initiatives and Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Consequently, you can imagine the situation we find ourselves in front of the whole world – we ask to be recognised, we ask for the right to be an independent state, the right to our sovereignty, and at the same time, we are essentially sheltering under the protectorate of a state that invades the territory of another country. Today, our chances of being recognised by anyone else in the world, other than Syria and Venezuela, have become even slimmer. I just want to reiterate a crucial point: of course, we are to blame for this, and I am not trying to shift all of it onto the so-called older brother, but one cannot forget that South Ossetia is currently a hostage, precisely a hostage of the Russian Federation.

Alik, you've been closely following Georgian politics—discussions about a "war party", the risks of opening a second front, and on the other hand, talks of Moscow and Tbilisi coming closer. How are these perceptions received in Ossetia?

Alik Pukhati: In Ossetia, these developments are observed with a sense of subtle unease. The current alignment between the Georgian elite and their Russian counterparts is evident. The party presently in power in Georgia is executing a strategy that, I might say, is rather astute for Georgia's interests. They benefit from parallel imports, and Georgia's economy reaps substantial financial rewards from Russian emigrants and general Russian tourists. This influx of Russian money significantly boosts the Georgian economy. Yet, publicly, Georgia does not retract its territorial claims over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. From my perspective, Georgia finds itself in an advantageous position—a win-win situation. On one hand, they exploit Russia's challenging circumstances arising from Western sanctions, and on the other, Russia, given the current scenario, cannot exert significant pressure on Georgia. Thus, both in the North and the South, the unified Ossetian perspective views this evolving geopolitical landscape with caution.

Do they fear the opening of a second front, or do they fear the rapprochement between Moscow and Tbilisi?

Let's put it this way; we find ourselves caught between two fires. Opening a second front for us now is certainly not a very good prospect. In general, war is a bad prospect, that's from one side. On the other hand, one can increasingly hear the words that the Georgians, failing to take South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force, are now slowly pushing this issue with economic and political measures, and through mutual integration with Russian elites. Moreover, in the opinion of many people, including mine, they already have a ready-made roadmap for achieving the integration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia, in such a way that it would not provoke disputes in Russia. Yes, Russia stands its ground, undoubtedly. Russian officials declare that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be revoked under any conditions, but again, to create a united Georgia and further the existence of this imperial project, sovereignty isn't necessary. Georgia can calmly declare a confederation or create a federation, and then slowly deprive Abkhazia and South Ossetia of their sovereignty. At least, such behind-the-scenes discussions are circulating in South Ossetia, North Ossetia, and Moscow. And these discussions are well-known.

Ruslan, how realistic is such a project, and under what conditions is it possible?

Ruslan Totrov: Answering this question, I first want to take you back to the 90s. It saddens me to hear these days, when talking about the 15th anniversary of the 2008 war, that 15 years ago, it's said, the Ossetians gained their independence. Such a widespread point of view is common. We always try to correct it and remind everyone that if we only talk about the most recent history, then, excuse me, our liberation movement began in '89. In the early 90s, during the most challenging days for Ossetia, I'd like to remind you that we didn't rely on the support of the Russian Federation because the Georgian state relied on it. Why do I bring this up? Because sometimes history takes completely unpredictable turns. And despite the fact that until recently the story of a confederation might have seemed like a fruit of someone's vivid imagination, I can't exclude anything. Why do I speak of South Ossetia as a geopolitical hostage? Reflecting on how the war might end and what outcome - let's be somewhat selfish here - what outcome would be best for South Ossetia, I recall an old parable that says both options are worse. No matter how it all ends, I don't see a single possibility for strengthening South Ossetia's position, much to my regret, simply because we were, and probably will remain, hostages of this situation. A confederation is realistic in the minds of those who develop this project. I can admit it theoretically, but I can't practically. However, so many times even the most absurd or bold endeavours have suddenly turned into reality.

+ An excerpt from Ossetian linguist Vasily Abaev's ‘The Tragedy of South Ossetia’
+ Wiki Leaks and the South Ossetia War, by Patrick Armstrong
+ The Lessons of August (2008), by Natella Akaba
+ Georgia's fine, lofty, useless strategy, by George Hewitt

So, is everything possible?

If you're seeking my opinion, probably not. However, I wouldn't be utterly taken aback if it did happen because it's not an alien concept."

Let's approach it this way then. How does society feel 15 years after the August war? And is there still the same confidence as there was right after August 2008 that such an event won't recur?

To be honest, I'm uncertain how to respond, given the myriad of opinions. Let's consider two perspectives. On one hand, there's this surge of ultra-patriotism that has swept the populace. Riding on this wave, some might feel that Russia will always have our back, and will never abandon us.

Especially if Russia manages affairs in Ukraine – yes, that's one viewpoint – then it will ensure we face no challenges. On the other hand, there's an opposing stance suggesting that another war might simply bring about profound and potentially uncontrollable discord. Everyone, and by everyone, I primarily mean the Russian Federation at the centre of this narrative, might become too preoccupied to concern themselves with South Ossetia, leading to unforeseen complications. Alania might just become a pawn in a larger game. That's also a possibility.

Alik, considering the international and regional turbulence that Ruslan mentioned, how do you envision the future for yourself? Ossetians and Georgians will continue to live side by side since geography is unchanging. What determines their peaceful coexistence?

Alik Pukhati: In my view, the peaceful coexistence of Ossetians and Georgians isn't an intrinsic issue. For centuries, we've lived side by side harmoniously. There's a vast web of familial ties between us – it's rare to find a family without relatives in Georgia or for Georgians, especially in border regions, without Ossetian kin. This isn't a grand challenge. True peaceful coexistence, I believe, will take root once Georgia's elites realise that an imperialistic project isn't feasible. In general, every nation must come to terms with the fact that an imperialist approach is outdated, ineffective, and should be abandoned. Once this realisation dawns upon the Georgian elites, and by the way, from my interactions on Twitter with young Georgians studying in European and American universities, I can sense a distinctly anti-imperialist sentiment. Yet, not all of them recognise Georgia's imperialistic undertones. As soon as they abandon this, as soon as Georgia recognises South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as soon as criminals like Zviad Gamsakhurdia are removed from the pantheon and aren't heroized by Georgian society – because this man primarily harmed Georgia as a state, I really don't understand his popularity in Georgia because he caused massive damage to Georgia. As soon as they realise that this path is wrong, I believe that within just 5-10 years, economic ties will immediately increase, mutual integration will happen, people will travel to each other, and everything will be fine. But a rather bold step is required from Georgia – to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia and acknowledge them as parties to the conflict.

They still aren't ready to admit our existence. They communicate exclusively with Russia: there's us, small Georgia, and there's big, menacing Russia. That's it! There are no Ossetians, no Abkhazians. It's like they don't see us. Only when they bring us into their field of vision, only when they are ready to talk to us, only when they're prepared to recognise us, what will happen next? 

Borders will open up, businesses will operate, transit and transit roads will function, people will earn money, many families will reunite – after all, it should be noted that quite a significant Georgian population lives in South Ossetia, and they aren't discriminated against; I believe they live comfortably. I think the tensions will decrease, and in 20-30 years after these steps, nothing of the conflict will remain except perhaps the establishment of a good institute in Georgia that will address the challenging histories of Ossetian-Georgian and Georgian-Abkhazian relationships. That's it! After all, we live side by side; we can't escape from each other – neither Ossetia, Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, nor the other North Caucasian republics, which are also part of this story. This must be understood. Recall that the Confederation of Mountain Peoples recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as parts of its territory. It's a lengthy process, but it will heal us all – all parties of these toxic relationships.

– Ruslan, here in Europe, many conflicts are in the past, and with time, in addition to ethnic identity, another identity has emerged – a pan-European one. What common identity can there be – the Caucasian peoples, or the formula spoken by the Georgians: "I am Georgian, which means I am European." If I'm Ossetian, who am I, besides being Russian, of course? I'm Ossetian – am I European, perhaps?

Ruslan Totrov: Perhaps it can be that way. I would like, of course, for an Ossetian to be primarily an Ossetian, then a representative of the Caucasian peoples, and then a European. And I am indeed not very pleased to see when both Ossetians and other Caucasian peoples, with a zeal and stubbornness worthy of better application, actively assimilate, and when the process of Russification goes too far. There probably won't be a situation analogous to what exists in Europe in the foreseeable future in terms of European identity. But it's very important to understand our own statehood. For Ossetians, it is critically important to realise that their fate isn't always in the hands of another country and that this is an abnormal situation. In business terms, one should not put all their eggs in one basket and one's geopolitical interests and preferences should not be solely reliant on one state. Furthermore, let me speak metaphorically – one should not bet on a losing horse. In the short term, you may receive certain benefits, but in the long run, this will undoubtedly result in significant issues, in this case, geopolitical ones.

Of course, Ossetians need to tirelessly – as Alik mentioned at the beginning – engage in informational policies, and we must continue to remind the world that our case is truly unique. It's not unique because we are a chosen people, no. It's unique solely because we withdrew from Georgia but did not leave the Soviet Union, having all the legal rights to do so. In the early 90s, we acted in strict accordance with international legislation, certainly utilising what's known as the legal continuum, and, of course, the fact that Georgia as a state did not yet exist on paper. Was this a well-thought-out and clear geopolitical move on our part? Absolutely, yes. Did we use that situation to act within the framework of international law? Without a doubt, yes. And yet, note that even this in today's world does not guarantee you recognition. Even this leaves you in a way on the geopolitical periphery, trying to prove something to the world. But I continue to insist that we must keep insisting.

Is this related to the ‘horse’ you mentioned, the one you placed a bet on?

Well, of course. Look, South Ossetia was forced to bet on this ‘horse’.Let's refrain from self-flagellation here. It's evident that Alania had no other alternatives. However, it's also essential to recognise when to dismount from the horse in time. The reason I emphasise the term 'hostage' is that our current stance is highly ineffective. This is primarily because, in the eyes of the international community, we're perceived as a minor entity that ardently supports Russia's actions. Unfortunately, this alone suffices for us to be grouped alongside how the global community currently views the Russian Federation. Whether we like it or not, we need to engage with the international establishment. We can assume a defensive stance and state, 'Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria recognise us, and that's enough. We will develop at our own pace.' Alternatively, we can tread the path of Kosovo. Of course, Kosovo had the inherent backing of the international community from the onset. I must reiterate: history often takes unpredictable turns. Hence, we must be cognizant that the status quo can change tomorrow. Therefore, it's prudent to consider other 'horses'."

This interview was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.




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