Monday, August 25, 2008

South Ossetia: World’s Biggest Duty-Free Shop

Prior to this recent war, even the residents of South Ossetia consider it the world's largest duty-free shop where one can procure anything from dried fish to chandeliers. Normally this would only be worrisome to the national government who could not collect appropriate duty for the goods that goes through its borders. But in the process of trapping a smuggler for peddling highly enriched uranium (HEU), even the Georgian Government wanted to "buy" to take place in Tbilisi to ensure that the materials did not disappear into the "black hole" of South Ossetia. In April 2008, Lawrence Scott Sheets, a visiting scholar at Michigan State and a regular contributor to NPR, wrote "A Smuggler's Story," for The Atlantic Monthly, about the peddling of weapons-grade uranium by small time crooks within the Georgian borders, particularly in South Ossetia. Mr. Sheets wrote:

[...] A strip of land about the size of Long Island and home to no more than 50,000 people, the region is partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists, and partly by the Georgian authorities. It effectively split off from Georgia in 1992, after a year of ethnic blood­letting between Georgians and Ossetians that left about 1,000 people dead and at least another 10,000 homeless.

[...] Today, any pretense South Ossetia had to independence has been abandoned. The Russian flag flies alongside the South Ossetian yellow, white, and red tricolor over the separatist government headquarters, a drab, early- Khrushchev-looking affair in the run-down capital of Tskhinvali. The tree-lined main avenue is still called “Stalin Street” (an ethnic Georgian, Stalin was said to have also had Ossetian roots). Most of the government’s top leaders are Russians with no ties to the region. Russia keeps 1,000 peacekeepers there (500 ethnic Russians and 500 North Ossetians) as part of a 16-year-old agreement; it has handed out passports to the local population and says it will defend the territory if Georgia acts to reassert control.

[...] South Ossetia also became especially popular with car thieves—Ossetian, Georgian, and Russian alike—who ripped off automobiles in Georgia, drove them the short distance to South Ossetia, and sold them to middlemen who then ferried them to Russia. And the U.S. government says counterfeit $100 bills traceable to South Ossetia have surfaced in at least four American cities.

[...] the basics of the case: how the authorities had caught Khintsagov, and how they believed his capture had been only the second interdiction of a serious international HEU smuggling attempt—both through Georgia—since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Mr. Sheets concludes that "What we know we don’t know about the state of Russian nuclear material is frightening enough." But then asked the red button question - "But what if these three would-be traffickers had been not bumblers but professionals —interested not in money but in ideology, focused on accumulating enough bomb-grade material to assemble a nuclear weapon that could kill millions of people?" You can read the entire piece here. It is a long piece but certainly worth a good reading especially in the context of the aftermath of the recent 8-day war. Yes - what if?

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