By Irina Kelekhsayeva in Tskhinval and Dmitry Avaliani in Tbilisi (CRS No. 392 17-May-07)
"Can't I just go to the grocery store, it's just a few steps away from here?" asked Svetlana, 36, a resident of the Georgian village Tamarasheni in the South Ossetia conflict zone, imploring to be allowed to cross to the other side of checkpoint manned by peacekeepers on the road between Tamarasheni and another Georgian village Kekhvi.
The mother said she had to buy some milk there for her 18-month-year-old child, whom she was holding in her arms, but was not allowed through.
For five days, South Ossetian security personnel have been standing guard here alongside Russian peacekeepers to ensure that the road remains closed.
On May 11, the de facto president of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity ordered that mobile police checkpoints be set up on roads leading to Georgian villages in the disputed zone. He said no one should be allowed to pass except for the holders of Russian and South Ossetian passports.
The following day there was a fierce exchange of gunfire in the region, followed by mutual accusations between the two sides about who had started it. There were no confirmed reports of serious injuries.
For four days all traffic was blocked around the Georgian villages. Then most vehicles were allowed to move again - but not on the road between Tamarasheni and Kekhvi, where the situation remains tense.
"I'm a Chechen and I live in a Georgian village here together with my husband and children," said Svetlana. She was not allowed to go to the shop, although one Russian peacekeeper, ignoring the evident disapproval of South Ossetian policemen, volunteered to bring milk for her.
"Closing the roads is just a piece of intrigue by both our government," said Svetlana. "I have great respect for [the unrecognised republic in] Tskhinval, but the incident makes me feel sorry and ashamed for all of them - both your government and ours."
The flaring of tension in a small armed and ethnically mixed region has alarmed international observers.
South Ossetia has been a disputed breakaway territory since 1991 when the region seceded de facto from Georgia after a bloody conflict that cost around 2,000 lives and resulted in tens of thousands becoming refugees.
It was regarded as the quietest of the separatist disputes in the South Caucasus until an upsurge of fighting in 2004. Since then, there has been constant tension between the capital Tskhinval (or Tskhinvali as the Georgians call it) and a group of ethnic Georgian villages.
This latest spike in tension followed the decision of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to create a "temporary administrative unit" in the region headed by "alternative president" Dmitry Sanakoyev in the heart of South Ossetia.
Sanakoyev, a former South Ossetian defence minister, was named "president" in an election conducted on November 12 last year by the "alternative central electoral commission" on the Georgian-controlled part of South Ossetia. The election ran in parallel with a larger presidential poll in the breakaway republic that was won by incumbent Eduard Kokoity.
Since then, the small region has had two opposing "presidents", living uneasily within a few kilometres of one another, neither of whom are recognised as legitimate by the international community.
The critical situation was discussed on May 16 at a meeting between Georgian conflict resolution minister Merab Antadze and Russian envoy Yury Popov, who co-chairs the Joint Control Commission for resolution of the conflict.
Both Tbilisi and Moscow blames the other for making the dispute worse.
"The Georgian side is waiting for Russia to give a clear answer on whether it intends to continue bringing in weapons - directly or in roundabout ways - to the Tskhinvali region and thereby exacerbating the situation in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone," Antadze told journalists.
In his turn, Popov rejected a key demand of the Tbilisi government, saying that he saw no reason for Sanakoyev to take part in the Joint Control Commission's work.
Sanakoyev is now being feted in Tbilisi. On May 11, he delivered a speech in his capacity as head of the temporary administration to the Georgian parliament. Addressing the deputies in Ossetian, he said the population of South Ossetia had lived in misery for the last seventeen years, while peacekeeping efforts had failed to "bear fruit".
Sanakoyev said that the future of South Ossetia lay within Georgia. "In future, the final result of Georgian-Ossetian dialogue should be the granting of broad autonomy to the region and the provision for the Ossetian people of guarantees of political representation and preservation of its cultural identity within a single state," said Sanakoyev.
On the same day, the South Ossetian interior ministry issued a statement blaming the escalation of tension in the conflict zone on what it termed the Georgian authorities' destructive policy. It said the roads in the zones had been closed in order to guarantee the security of the South Ossetian population.
"Ever since April, all travellers have had their passports copied at Georgian police checkpoints, so a database can be compiled. Many of them have been subjected to interrogations, illegal detention, threats and insults," said the ministry.
Another official statement by the de facto South Ossetian authorities said that by his actions in Tbilisi Sanakoyev had become "just another Georgian official" and the plan to establish an alternative presidency had failed.
Kokoity moved to defuse the situation after four days, lifting most of the blockade on the roads. There were various interpretations as to why he decided to do so. The Moscow newspaper Kommersant said the initiative to do so had come from the Russian government, which did not want another source of tension with Washington during the visit by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Ossetian villages had also suffered from the blockade and food could not be delivered to 16 villages in the Proni Valley for several days.
Georgian experts agree that the latest moves by the government in Tbilisi have shaken up the situation, but disagree about what this means.
Political analyst David Darchiashvili, who heads the Open Society-Georgia foundation, told IWPR that "Sanakoyev's new appointment caused the dynamics in the conflict zone to change". "[Sanakoyev's group] was created with Georgian support, but it is going to become an independent player," he said.
Darchiashvili said the decision to close the roads was a sign of fear on the side of the Kokoity administration. He was afraid that Kokoity might respond with an act of "provocation" and said it was important to keep up dialogue with him "not about political issues, but about security, demilitarization and free movement".
Former conflict resolution minister Giorgy Khaindrava said it was important to keep up negotiations with Kokoity "as he is a reality on the ground".
"However, one should keep in mind Russia is behind Kokoity, and he has nothing to lose," he said. "He has exhausted his potential and does not need peace. Escalation of the conflict is the only way out for him, and this is a real danger. The state and government exist in order to foresee all risks."
Irina Kelekhsayeva is a freelance journalist in South Ossetia. Dmitry Avaliani is a correspondent for 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi. This article is a product of IWPR's Cross Caucasus Journalism Network, supported by the European Union.