It was an opening that even the most experienced negotiator could overlook. While Western diplomats and journalists still scramble for access to the disputed town of Akhalgori in breakaway South Ossetia, broken water pipes have provided a way for the area's former Georgian officials to return.
Like most of Akhalgori's ethnic Georgian inhabitants, Vladimir Shermadini, former deputy head of the Akhalgori region, fled the hillside hamlet on August 15, 2008, when Ossetian separatist militia and Russian troops moved in. But within a week, he had returned.
His aim, he said, was simple: to talk to the town's new Ossetian officials, who were largely clueless when it came to the area's infrastructure, or its ongoing problems. "We introduced them to all the documentation and informed them how things were working in the region," Shermadini recounted to a EurasiaNet reporter. The town's water pipes need mending, "but they don't know how to do it," he said in reference to the Ossetians.
In the seven months since the Ossetian takeover, Shermadini, or the region's former Tbilisi-appointed boss, Zurab Pitskhelauri, have traveled to Akhalgori at least once a week, making a point to attend public meetings held by Ossetian officials each Sunday in the town's movie theater. "I haven't missed any of these meetings because I don't want to depend on hearsay. I want to get the information first-hand," Shermadini said.
In exchange for his help, Shermadini, who worked in Akhalgori's administration for 30 years, wanted guarantees for the completion of ongoing projects, such as repairing water and electricity systems and mending roads. Ossetian officials, many of whom had lived in Akhalgori before the 1991-1992 separatist war with Georgia, stopped short of providing guarantees, he said. "[T]he [new] administration has no power," Shermadini added.
Other displaced ethnic Georgians, who return occasionally to Akhalgori to check on property or visit relatives, describe it as a place in limbo.
"No one really controls the situation. There is a lot of confusion and chaos up there," related Robinson Tskomelidze, a member of one of 1,400 Akhalgori families living in Tserovani, an Internally Displaced Persons settlement not far from the Georgian city of Gori.
The town's Ossetian officials have the garbage collected twice a week and supply cars with gasoline, IDPs say. The local hospital's emergency unit still functions, with two physicians, a surgeon, nurses and assorted staff. The school and one kindergarten also remain open. Restaurants and a local brewery are closed.
The lifestyle is hard, though. There has been no supply of heating gas since August, and supplies water and electricity appear to be spotty. Pensions have gone unpaid. Salaries for Akhalgori-based public-sector jobs were last paid in January; no payment occurred in the months before and since, former residents said.
Minibuses that run five times per day between Akhalgori and Georgian-controlled territory are one of the few features of local life left unchanged by the war. Akhalgori store clerks still rely on the buses to buy supplies in Tbilisi, some 90 minutes away, but the shuttling comes at a cost.
"It's only safe for a few people to go ? it's mostly women who go back," said IDP Tskomelidze. The treatment of travelers to Akhalgori depends on who is manning the Ossetian militia post on the edge of town, he said. "Generally, private cars do not have to pay [for entrance to the town.] Minibuses pay five to 10 Georgian lari [about $3 - $6]. But they might ask a hundred lari [about $60] from you, and if you don't have it, they will keep you until someone comes with the money," Tskomelidze recounted.
Officials in Tskhinvali could not be reached to verify the account.
Those women who have made the journey, do so with hesitation. One Ossetian woman, who gave her name as Dali, left Akhalgori out of fear for her children, who carry their Georgian father's last name. She returns regularly to care for her ailing elderly parents. "I have never been stopped or harassed," Dali recounted, adding that she spends the night at her parents' house, rather than her own, since their Ossetian ethnicity provides a degree of protection.
Both Ossetian and Georgian IDPs from Akhalgori interviewed by EurasiaNet said that there had been no attempt at forcing town residents to take Russian or South Ossetian passports - a claim frequently made by Georgian media outlets.
Former residents note, however, that Akhalgori is no longer safe for Ossetians, either. On March 4, an ethnic Ossetian school teacher and town official were arrested and charged with treason and attempting the violent overthrow of de facto President Eduard Kokoity for taking part in the 2006 "alternative" presidential elections staged by Tbilisi in Georgian-controlled South Ossetia. After an international outcry, the pair was released from jail.
A March 8 explosion at a weapons depot a few kilometers from Akhalgori added further to the sense of unease. Former Akhalgori deputy head Shermadini returned three days later to find all his apartment windows shattered by the blast.
"The Russians were trying to cover up the event, apologizing, but sending people to their basements for hiding," Shermadini related. "The people had no idea what was happening. Some thought that another war had started with Georgians who were invading the area."
Several more explosions followed on March 12. The blasts sent an additional 22 families to the IDP settlement in Tserovani. Shermadini estimates that no more than 5 percent of Akhalgori's population today remains. The Ossetian head of the regional administration, Anatoli Margievi, and his deputy can no longer be reached, he claimed in a recent interview.
The information could not be independently verified, but it appears that Shermadini's input on the Akhalgori water pipe repairs now may never occur. Concluded Shermadini: "No one is safe there anymore."
Deborah B. Wild is a freelance journalist who divides her time between Bucharest, Romania and Tbilisi, Georgia.