While the world watches Syria, Russia Escalates Ground Game in Georgia

republic-of-south-ossetia-mapAs Russia consolidates its gains in Syria and stalls on peace talks in Ukraine, the New York Times reports that Russia is slowly inching forward on another front. In South Ossetia, the breakaway republic of Georgia sponsored by Russia since the 2008 war, the border keeps creeping forward: 

Marked in places with barbed wire laid at night, in others by the sudden appearance of green signs declaring the start of a “state border” and elsewhere by the arrival of bulldozers, the reach of Russia keeps inching forward into Georgia with ever more ingenious markings of a frontier that only Russia and three other states recognize as real. 

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-story house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards. […] 

“Russia starts right here,” said Mr. Tatiashvili, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

The Times story is a fascinating look into the day-to-day realities of living in disputed territory produced by one of Moscow’s frozen conflicts. It also demonstrates Russia’s ability to create “facts on the ground” through the application of force and the tacit complicity of leadership—in Georgia and the West—that is too distracted or risk-averse to push back. Russia has been moving the occupation line and setting up barbed-wire barricades since 2013.

That track marks the world’s newest and perhaps oddest international frontier — the elastic boundary between Georgian-controlled land and the Republic of South Ossetia, a self-proclaimed breakaway state financed, defended and controlled by Moscow.

georgia-and-disputed-areas-mapThe destitute mountainous area of South Ossetia first declared itself independent from Georgia in 1990, but nobody outside the region paid much attention until Russia invaded in August 2008 and recognized South Ossetia’s claims to statehood. With that, the territory joined Abkhazia in western Georgia, the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria and eastern Ukraine as a “frozen zone,” an area of Russian control within neighboring states, useful for things like preventing a NATO foothold or ddestabilizing the host country at opportune moments.

Leonid Tibilov
Leonid Tibilov

The leader of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, has said he plans to hold a referendum like the one in Crimea in 2014 on whether to request annexation by Russia.

But even without a referendum, the nominally independent country is already Russian territory in all but name. It has its own small security force, but its self-declared frontiers are mainly guarded by Russia’s border service, an arm of the Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet version of the K.G.B. It houses three Russian military bases with several thousand troops and, with no economy beyond a few farms, depends almost entirely on Russian aid for its survival.

24georgia-web-superjumboThe green border signs that first appeared last year and now keep popping up along the zigzagging boundary warn that “passage is forbidden” across what is declared to be a “state border.” Which state, however, is not specified, though locals are in no doubt about its identity.

“Russia starts right here,” Mr. Tatiashvili said, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land.

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

One of the new signs — written in English and Georgian — is just a few hundred yards from Georgia’s main east-west highway, and it puts a short part of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to a Georgian port on the Black Sea within territory controlled by Russia.

So tangled is the dispute over what land belongs to whom that each side has its own definition of the line. Russia and South Ossetia insist it is a border like any other — Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru also recognize it — while Georgia calls it “the occupation line.” The European Union, which has around 200 unarmed police officers in Georgia to monitor the agreement that ended the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, also says there is no actual border, only an “administrative boundary line.”

Kestutis Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia
Kestutis Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia

Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia, said it was hard to know where this boundary line exactly runs. It was never recognized or agreed upon, and its location depends on which maps are used. Russia, he said, is using a map drawn by the Soviet military’s general staff in the 1980s.

It demarcates what in the Soviet era was an inconsequential administrative boundary within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia but what is now hardening into a hazardous frontier.

The fitful movement of the boundary seems to be driven mostly by Russia’s desire to align what it sees as a state border with this old Soviet map. So far, the movement has always been forward, often by just a few yards but at other times by bigger leaps.

Mikheil Saakashvili
Mikheil Saakashvili

When it defeated supporters of former President Mikheil Saakashvili in elections four years ago, a coalition led by Georgian Dream, a party set up by an enigmatic billionaire, pledged to reduce tensions with Russia, which loathed Mr. Saakashvili.

Instead, Russian border guards have moved deeper into Georgian territory.

Bidzina Ivanishvili
Bidzina Ivanishvili

The shifting border has created credibility problems for the Georgian government, exposing the ruling Georgian Dream party to criticism that it is too soft on Russia. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder and sponsor, has always encouraged a lenient line toward Moscow, musing about joining the Eurasian Union and urging “patience” as Russia installed fences on the border. Nonetheless, Georgian Dream prevailed in the initial parliamentary elections on October 8, with the runoff at the end of

the month set to determine the extent of the party’s majority.

Giorgi Kvirikashvili
Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Even with a stronger mandate, however, Georgian Dream is unlikely to take a harsher stance on Russia. True, the New York Times quotes Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili apparently questioning the wisdom of rapprochement: “Unfortunately, Russia never appreciates when you concede or make a step forward or compromise,” said Kvirikashvili. “They always take it for granted.”

All the same, he insisted that even though his government had no intention of repeating Mr. Saakashvili’s disastrous 2008 attempt to confront Russia militarily, the border will not last.

But the true decider in Georgian Dream remain Ivanishvili, who craves good relations with Moscow and has floated the idea of cooperating with the Alliance of Patriots, the most overtly pro-Moscow party in Parliament.

While the Prime Minister’s words may provide hope to Russia hawks, they have not translated into actual policy proposals to counter Russia’s actions.

A protest rally in Tblisi criticizing government policies toward Russia.
A protest rally in Tblisi criticizing government policies toward Russia.

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-storey house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards.

So, expect business as usual in Georgia: Russia will continue to change facts on the ground, while Tbilisi and the West do little but protest.