SOUTH OSSETIA: Students seek refuge in Russian HE

Russian higher education authorities in Northern Ossetia are struggling to find university places for more than 1,000 students who fled the fighting in South Ossetia. The university students, 400 technical college students and 5,000 schoolchildren were among around 15,000 refugees from the war who have been officially registered in Northern Ossetia, the Russian republic that borders the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia.

Although finding university places for the students was not the highest priority for Northern Ossetian officials, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that efforts were being made to place them throughout Russian higher education institutions.

"The republic is simply not able to cope with their distribution to educational institutions by 1 September [when the Russian university autumn term starts]," a Northern Ossetian official told Kommersant. "Federal authorities have promised to help and we hope that the problem will be solved by the beginning of the academic year."

No details were given on which institutions the students had fled from but a large number are likely to have come from the main institution in the region, the Southern Ossetian State University in Tskhinval.

Reports published on the official website of the joint control commission for the resolution of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, an organisation set up in June 1992 following the first civil war there, suggest that the majority of the student refugees had been studying there.

Although the site has not been updated since August 7 - the day the Georgian army launched its attack on South Ossetia when its last news report noted that Georgian air force jets were carrying out flights over the region - reports on university activities suggest that despite the economic difficulties faced in a region that had been unofficially independent for 16 years, the university was working well.

In April, a site correspondent, Emilija Bekoity, quoting university rector Taimuraz Kokoev, wrote that because of difficulties in finding young and well-qualified teaching staff, postgraduates students were being sent to study on courses at universities in Moscow, Rostov, Vladikavkaz and other Russian cities.

"Candidates were selected in accordance with the results shown during their studying. All of them graduated from the University with excellent diplomas, they participated in scientific conferences. This year it is intended to send out of the boundaries of South Ossetia graduates on the specialties 'finances and credit' and 'management'," Bekoity wrote.

There were plans to open a new postgraduate teaching department with specialities in foreign languages, chemistry and pedagogics, she added.

The university's status as a higher education institution in an unrecognised state had led it to form associations with others in similar regions under an 'association of universities in unrecognised states' chaired by the rector of Transdnestria's Transnistrian State University, Stepah Beril. Transdnestria is an unrecognised Russian-backed area of Moldova.

Rector Kokoev, quoted on the site, said: "The regulations of the association stressed a very important point about mutual support, exchange of students, including assistance in studying postgraduate courses. I think that things are moving and we'll have a lot of young personnel upon which our university [will depend]."

Other reports mentioned cooperation with Russian universities - 48 South Ossetia high school graduates were this year due to enter Russian higher education - and a report on the first anniversary of a student newspaper Sombon produced by students from the university's journalism faculty with the help of the editor of local newspaper Respublika, Andrei Kochiev.

Russia, after dragging its heels over a ceasefire agreement to withdraw its soldiers, tanks and artillery from positions deep within Georgian territory, has pledged to rebuild Southern Ossetia. But when the region's university students will be able to return and to what extent their university has been damaged or destroyed, remains unclear.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev's contentious recognition of South Ossetian independence - widely condemned by the international community last week as a breach of Georgia's sovereignty - may mean the students are able to return home soon. That the newly independent country may soon be absorbed into Russia is in little doubt.

With a population of just 70,000 a barely functioning economy and widespread lawlessness, South Ossetia has little chance of functioning as an independent state in the long run.
The South Ossetia Joint Control Commission site can be found at: