Russian workers rebuild breakaway province

Russia has sent hundreds of workers to rebuild the shattered rebel capital of Tskhinvali just weeks after its military routed Georgian forces here, and has promised cash payments for every South Ossetian – the latest in efforts to shore up its alliance with the breakaway Georgian province.

Russian builder Igor Semyonov is proud just to be a part of the 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 on its front steps.

“It will be more beautiful than ever,” he said 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. Ethnic Ossetians are grateful for the support.

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