The last time South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia — the last three times, actually — hardly anyone noticed. Even Russia, its great friend to the north, declined to take up the cause.
South Ossetia is a piece of mountainous land with a population of around 70,000. The capital, Tskhinvali, is a mess of crumbling apartment blocks, their facades pocked with bullet holes. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has had no economy to speak of, except for apple orchards and illegal trade in drugs, armaments and counterfeit $100 bills.
But a lot has changed in the last two weeks.
First Georgia, then Russia, sent troops into South Ossetia earlier this month, making the tiny territory the center of a Cold War-style struggle between Russia and the West. On Monday, Tskhinvali residents listened over a loudspeaker in the city’s main square to a live broadcast from Moscow, where the Russian Parliament voted unanimously to support independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second breakaway region, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
The news spread quickly, and people leaned out car windows with Russian and South Ossetian flags, spraying pedestrians with champagne.
“Finally, finally, Russia has acknowledged that we exist, and that we have suffered,” said Vova Bakayev, 41, an Ossetian soldier stationed outside Tskhinvali’s makeshift International Press Center.
Official recognition will require the signature of the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev. Even then, its relevance would be largely symbolic. Most Western countries have pledged to support Georgia’s territorial integrity, and Georgian officials say a unilateral recognition by Russia would be meaningless.
But that hardly dampened spirits in Tskhinvali. The capital was shelled by Georgian forces on Aug. 7, sending many of its people to cower in basements. But Russia quickly stormed in, chasing out Georgian troops and pushing well into Georgia proper. It has mostly pulled back but has maintained a strong troop presence in South Ossetia.
Citizens here said the military action and parliamentary vote amounted to a lasting pledge of protection by Russia and its allies.
“I think after Russia, we will be recognized by, for example, Belgrade, for example, China, and maybe Syria, and also Belarus,” said Alexei Sanokoyev, 23, an analyst for the South Ossetian government’s foreign policy department, which has covered its broken windows with clear plastic sheeting.
“And Cuba, of course,” he added.
As Georgia grappled with two separatist regions, Abkhazia was always the bigger prize: It occupies a strategic position on the Black Sea coast, and was a beloved seaside resort in Soviet days. South Ossetia could not even boast of a gravel and concrete industry, as Abkhazia could. Many longtime observers expected hostilities to flare up in Abkhazia, whose separatist leaders have adamantly demanded independence.