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Russia-Georgia Fence-Mending Hits a Snag

Barbed-wire barriers going up along the South Ossetian ‘border’ complicate an expected reset in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow.

by Nino Chimakadze 18 July 2013

SHIDA KARTLI REGION, Georgia | Walk to the edge of the village of Ditsi and you can see the iron posts marching across the neighboring valley. Along the line of metal pillars is a car, and next to the car are some men in military dress. They are Russian border guards, and they are building a fence.


Ditsi is just south of the administrative boundary between Georgia and the Russia-backed de facto republic of South Ossetia, about a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) drive from its capital of Tskhinvali. Officials in the breakaway region have delegated border control to Russia, and in recent months the guards have stepped up the erection barbed-wire barriers demarcating the boundary – and, according to locals, moving it, about 300 meters (330 yards) deeper into Georgian territory, cutting off access to pastures, water sources, and the village cemetery.

A diplomatic row has broken out over the placement of a fence between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia proper. Photo by Nino Chimakadze.


Eying the pillars, Ilia Beruashvili, a middle-aged Ditsi resident, said he has a garden on the other side. He is loath to visit it, even though the barbed wire is not yet in place here – border guards detained a young villager a few weeks ago for crossing to the Russian-controlled side. Other villagers mention similar detentions, some resolved with payments.


“I haven’t been able to go there for a long time, because they might catch us,” Beruashvili said. “I practically can’t use my lot.”


In Patara Khurvaleti, southeast of Tskhinvali, the fence cuts off two houses from the rest of the village. Malkhaz, 18, lives in one of them. (Like many locals, he declined to give his full name.) He sneaks across the line to visit relatives and friends, or to go to Tbilisi or the regional hub of Gori. “If they see me, they’ll capture me,” he said. “Once they did but then released me and warned not to do it again. My grandfather was also caught once.”


Five years after the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war that established the boundary, and nine months after Georgians elected a new government seemingly more willing to mend fences with Moscow, the border barriers have ignited a diplomatic skirmish. They have also reignited debate over whether the now-ruling Georgian Dream coalition’s policy of engagement, which has reopened the Russian market to Georgian wine and other products, can alter the equation in the country’s breakaway regions.


The boundary demarcation in Shida Kartli started in 2011 with the construction of a few fences in Ditsi and another small village, Dvani, but it was stopped after local negotiations. The Russians restarted the work, more intensively, in March, according to Andro Barnovi, who was at the time the region’s governor. Through diplomatic channels, Tbilisi lodged a complaint with Russia in late May, but Barnovi – now chief of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration – said the government’s response has been too little, too late.


“The interior minister said the border demarcation started before the new government,” Barnovi said, referring to the Georgian Dream coalition that dislodged Saakashvili’s United National Movement in October’s parliamentary elections. “Yes, it started then, but we managed to stop it. Then the Russians renewed it on a wider scale. Should we remain silent about it?”


Barnovi said the new government erred in firing police veterans in Shida Kartli who knew the region well, had personal contacts with residents and Russian border guards, and mediated conflicts.


“If they stretch wires across a property, at the political level we can’t say, ‘Don’t split the house, put it somewhere else,’ ” Barnovi said. “At the political level we can talk about occupation and international commitments that Russia doesn’t recognize, but at the local level we could negotiate and somehow facilitate the situation.”


But in disputes between Russia and Georgia, the political dimension is never far away, particularly since the election. “They know that this new Georgian government will not resist them properly,” Barnovi said. “Yes, many international organizations have expressed concern [about the fence-building], but their interest will wane if we aren’t active ourselves and don’t take principled positions.”


The government says it has been addressing the fence issue, raising it in talks with Russian officials in Prague and Geneva last month. In a 28 May statement the Foreign Ministry termed the barrier construction “a blatant violation of the fundamental principles of international law, primarily of Georgia’s territorial integrity and the inviolability of internationally recognized borders,” and of the two countries’ August 2008 cease-fire agreement.


NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed that assessment in a late-June visit to Georgia, saying the fence-building “impedes freedom of movement” and could “further inflame tensions” in the region. OSCE and EU monitors have also denounced the fences.


But the situation on the ground does not appear to have changed. Officials say the fence-building has continued, and on 16 July five more people were reportedly detained for border violations in the villages of Akhalubani and Khviti.


“The situation is difficult. The Russians continue to construct the barriers and kidnap people, but we are doing our best to prevent this,” said David Sujashvili, the head of the Georgian Interior Ministry’s analytical department. “Our first mission now is to free our captured citizens.”




Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has criticized the border activity, invoking the notion of a Russia-Georgia reset that accompanied his coalition’s election.


Bidzina Ivanishvili
“What’s happening is very unpleasant and, frankly speaking, incomprehensible, too. I thought a different relationship would develop between the new Georgian government and Russia,” Ivanishvili said in a 29 May interview with Georgian newspaper Prime Time. “We have spared no effort to sort out the situation.”


But he has also minimized a direct Moscow role in the border works, saying on Georgian television on 30 May that he has “a more moderate stance on this issue [than the Foreign Ministry] because I think that it is more about misunderstanding rather than the policy guided from the center, from the Kremlin, if you wish.”


Ivanishvili reiterated that view in a 2 July interview with German news service Deutsche Welle, saying, “I do not think that this is done in a centralized manner by the Kremlin,” and citing progress in other areas, such as visas and trade, toward normalizing relations with Russia.


In the short term, those smaller victories matter, said Jana Kobzova, an expert on the former Soviet Union with the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.


While neither side is ready to budge on sovereignty for South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway territory – a demand for Moscow and a red line for Tbilisi – “importantly, this is not the objective of the reset in the short term,” Kobzova said. “The Georgian side has reached out to try to mend relations in other areas such as trade, the visa situation, and so on, assuming that small progress is better than no progress at all.” The conciliatory tone “is in line with what many [of] Georgia’s partners advised Tbilisi to do a long time ago so Tbilisi couldn't be blamed for further antagonizing relations with Moscow,” she said.


But Russia’s border moves demonstrate how far off further accord remains, Kobzova added. “Moscow has its own demands from Georgia, such as recognition of South Ossetia or Abkhazia independence or close security cooperation ahead of the Sochi Olympics, that Tbilisi is highly unlikely to meet, because intelligence-sharing with Moscow would be hardly compatible with Tbilisi's ambition to further its ties with NATO.”


Previously scheduled Russia-Georgia talks in Prague and Geneva in June yielded no progress on the border question, with the Kremlin blaming Georgian unwillingness to formally include South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the process.


“The South Ossetian side has repeatedly put forward the issue of starting the demarcation of borders with Georgia, but Georgia has refrained from it for various reasons,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said after the Prague meeting. He reiterated a call for Georgia to annul its law on occupied territories, passed in the wake of the 2008 war, which forbids entry into the disputed territories from Russia.




Not surprisingly, views on why Russia renewed the barrier-building only after Georgia elected a government that promised new overtures to Moscow tend to depend on which side of the political fence one sits.


Opposition figures such as Barnovi and the current Shida Kartli governor, Saakashvili appointee Zurab Chkheidze, contend Russia takes the new government’s more diplomatic stance as passivity, and a license to legitimize its presence in South Ossetia. Paata Zakareishvili, Georgia’s minister for reintegration, said Russia is indeed responding to Georgian Dream, but in a very different way. He cites the coalition’s outreach to Ossetians, which Ivanishvili has characterized as the best way to bring them back into the Georgian fold.


“Recently there was a woman with a baby from Vladikavkaz [the capital of North Ossetia in Russia] who came [to Georgia] for treatment, and she’s not the only one. I think first and foremost these barriers are directed at Ossetians, because they have started moving to our side more actively,” said Zakareishvili, who has worked for years on initiatives in the breakaway regions. “Russians can capture Georgians when they cross the ‘line,’ but they cannot capture Ossetians, so they started building the fences – a kind of Berlin Wall.”


As West Germany’s economic opportunities attracted East Germans during the communist era, he said, “I’m sure that after a while Ossetians will start destroying the barriers themselves, because it’s impossible to have Tbilisi and Gori so close and still remain in that enclave.”

UN map from Wikimedia Commons.


Kakha Gogolashvili, the director of EU studies at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said there is merit in the view that Russia fears tighter Georgian-Ossetian ties. He also suggested Moscow might simply have decided, five years into its presence in South Ossetia, that it was about time to mark out the line, regardless of who held power in Tbilisi.


Whatever Russia’s motives, Gogolashvili said too much compromise could lead Georgia into a cul de sac. “First, despite all the attempts, we don’t know if we can achieve anything with Russia, with such an unstable and unpredictable country,” he said. “And second, if we make too many concessions, then we won’t have right to demand strong support from the West and ask them to denounce Russia’s actions.


“I see more risks than possibilities in this amorphous game,” Gogolashvili added, likening the border situation to the government’s pledge to both strengthen ties with Russia and keep Georgia on a path to NATO membership and integration with Europe.


Zakareishvili, the reintegration minister, implied that it’s a balancing act Georgia can maintain, using overtures to Russia to blunt Kremlin opposition to further Western ties.


“We should manage to leave Russia with only two options: a friendly Georgia in NATO or an antagonistic Georgia in NATO,” Zakareishvili said. “The difference is significant, and I think Russia understands it.”


But Zurab Japaridze, a United National Movement legislator and potential candidate in October’s presidential election, sees a much bigger bar to solving problems such as the border fence.


“I cannot imagine a normal, equal relationship with Russia until it becomes a democratic state that respects other countries’ sovereignty,” he said.

Nino Chimakadze is a reporter for Tskheli Shokoladi (Hot Chocolate) magazine in Tbilisi.
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