Military


South Ossetia - Roki Tunnel / Roksky Tunnel

Georgia wants to establish control of South Ossetia for economic as well as political reasons. The country has a gaping holes in its northern border: Roksky Tunnel, through which narcotics and alcohol travel north into Russia, while oil and arms move south into Georgia. Nothing goes through the tunnel without the knowledge of the Russian peacekeepers. But the Georgian side holds that it cannot organize an official custom house on the border between Georgia and South Osetia in order not to emphasize the existence of this border.

The mainstay of the local economy is the Roksky tunnel under the main Caucasian range, which is a major route for smuggling goods in and out of Russia. Any initiative to close down this hotbed of smuggling from either Georgia or Russia will automatically lead to major discontent and a decrease in the people's incomes in South Ossetia. If Georgia succeeded in bringing South Ossetia under its control, it would probabl wish to close the Roksky tunnel and, at the same time, invest in the creation and development of infrastructure and industry in South Ossetia.

The Main Ridge of Caucasus is a formidable barrier between Russian-occupied Northern Caucasus and the independent states of Transcaucasia. There are only three auto-roads crossing Glavny (Main) Caucasus ridge: Voenno-Gruzinskaya (Military-Georgian) road (through "Cross" pass -2819 m), connecting Vladicaucasus and Tbilisy; the tunnel under Rokhsky pass ; Voenno-Osetinskaya (Military-Osetinskaya) road (through Mamisonsky pass -2819 m), accessible during warm season only.

The Voyenno-Gruzinskaya Doroga (the Military-Georgian Road) crosses the ridge, starting from Vladikavkaz and running to Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, on the other side of the Ridge. Russian troops built it in the 1850s. This road is famed all over the world for its wild beauty: a gorge runs alongside, and mountains rise above the road and the gorge. It passes through spectacular Darial Gorge, and then close to Kazbek (5033m/16,800') - the ridge's second highest mountain. Kazbek and Elbrus (5642 m/18,800') are both active volcanoes, but they haven't erupted in the last 500 years. [during Gorbachev's era, the Arbat -- Moscow's most charming and lively pedestrian street, was known as the Military-Georgian Road, as it runs between the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which at that time was under the care of Eduard Shevardnadze, a Georgian.]

Straddling the Caucasus Mountains, the territories of North and South Ossetia contain a major mountain pass linking Russia to Georgia. In the nineteenth century, this pass was a key strategic asset of the Russian Empire in its conquest of the Caucasus. Later, in the Soviet period, these territories served as a major transport hub. The Trans-Caucasus highway was built in the eighties to link Tbilisi with Moscow. The Roksky tunnel, one of the world's longest, was constructed in 1985 to cut through the mountains at the pass between North and South Ossetia, effectively connecting the economies of the north and south Caucasus.

The 2.5-mile long Roki Tunnel / Roksky Tunnel on the Trans-Caucasus Highway links Russia's North Ossetia region and the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. The Roksky tunnel, one of the two principal routes across the Central Caucasian Ridge, links Russia with Georgia through the 10,000-foot Roksky Pass. The 3,660-meter tunnel under Roksky Pass is the largest tunnel in the European part of Russia. It is easier to convey loads to these regions through the Roksky tunnel then by the Military Georgian Road (through the Lars check-point).

One emerging problem is managing the deteriorating infrastructure inherited from the USSR. For example, constant interruption of traffic and loss of lives on Trans-Caucasus Highway [ Trans-Caucasian Highway ] in North Ossetia due to avalanches. These are recurring events caused primarily by improper management and over-ambitious planning, which sacrificed economic and environmental considerations to political ones. The case of the Trans-Caucasus highway is an especially telling example. It was constructed on the present location mainly to provide a connection between Russia and Georgia, even though this route was known to be hazardous from the beginning.

Snow avalanches are seasonal hazards. An avalanche-risk period on the territory of Russia usually begins in December and ends in March. The greatest hazards of avalanche are deaths of people, destruction of automobile roads and railways, transport means and power transmission lines. Most vulnerable in terms of snow avalanches is the area of the Roksky mountain pass of the Trans-Caucasian automobile road connecting Russia and Georgia. In January 1993 an avalanche has thrown down a bus into a gorge here, as a result 47 people died. On January 2, 1997 rescue teams using helicopters evacuated 148 people today from a tunnel in the Caucasus mountains where they had been trapped for almost a week by avalanches. About 60 people, mainly drivers, had chosen to stay because they did not want to abandon their vehicles at the tunnel. At present an avalanche threat to the road in the Roksky pass area becomes less due to construction in 2002 of an avalanche-control gallery 1.6 km long.

The Roksky tunnel is South Ossetia's lifeline. By 2002, Russian border guards at the North Ossetian checkpoint in Nizhny Zaramag estimatd that 700 to 800 vehicles passed in both directions through the tunnel every day. According to estimates, trucks carried millions of dollars worth of contraband goods across the border each year. A vast marketplace had been set up just north of South Ossetia's makeshift "border" with Georgia. Here untaxed products from Russia, including cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline were sold at prices generally about half of those in Georgia.

The work to repair the Roksky tunnel was finished in December 2004. During the year long repair project, a new road in the tunnel was laid, the lighting and ventilation systems were completely redone and cameras were installed in the tunnel so that supervisors can control practically the entire tunnel.

Georgia warned Russia on numerous occasions in 2006 against rotating its troops through a checkpoint that was not under Georgian control and where it cannot check the peacekeepers'' visas. Previously, Russian peacekeepers passed through the Nizhny Zaramag checkpoint at the Roksky tunnel on the border between unrecognized South Ossetia and the Russian region of North Ossetia.

Russian defense minister Sergey Ivanov said "Our [Russian] peacekeepers in South Ossetia act within the framework of the Joint Control Commission and the current agreements say nothing about visas for peacekeepers."

On 31 May 2006 the Georgian state minister for conflict resolution issues protested the rotation of Russian peacekeepers in the Caucasian country's breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. "As the Georgian state minister for conflict resolution issues and the cochairman of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) I express a categorical protest against the illegal actions of the CIS collective peacekeeping contingents and demand an immediate explanation from their commanders," Giorgi Khaindrava said in a statement. Khaindrava said Russian peacekeepers were using two officially closed sectors, the Roksky tunnel (on the border between South and North Ossetia) and the Psou River (between Russia and Abkhazia) to conduct the rotation.

But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday that the rotation that had enraged the Georgian leadership would continue despite Georgia's warnings. "Rotation of peacekeepers is held once every six months and we have no plans to cancel it," said Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister. "It has been and will be held through the Roksky tunnel."

In August 2007 the U.S embassy in Tbilisi explained the need for monitoring of the Roksky tunnel. The tunnel is the main link between Russia and South Ossetia. Georgia has repeated accused Russia of providing arms to South Ossetia through the tunnel.

On Aug. 20, 2007 Chairman of the South Ossetian Committee on Information and the Press Irina Gagloeva told Kommersant in Tskhinvali, "The U.S. and Georgia have seized on the missile incident and now they want to close the Roksky Tunnel to cut our republic off from Russia. We can live without water, but we won't last long without Russia support. As long as a single Ossetian is alive, no Georgian or American will get anywhere near the Roksky Tunnel!"

On 05 August 2008 US State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said that Washington would like to see "joint Georgian-Russian monitoring of the Roksky tunnel, to stem the flow of illicit arms, ammunition and armed groups into the region."

According to Georgian officials on 08 August 2008, mercenaries and military equipment were arriving to the region from Russia via Roksky Tunnel on the Trans-Caucasus highway. The only way to ease tension would be to establish joint Russian-Georgian monitoring over the South-Ossetian section of the border, increase the number of OSCE's observers and start direct Georgian-Ossetian talks, Georgia's Foreign Ministry concluded.



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