An Eerie Quiet Along Georgia’s ‘Border’ with South Ossetia
With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine failing, Will Neal looks at the Kremlin’s ‘frozen’ conflict with another neighbour. Will Russia try to score a victory there?
Valia Vanishvili lives in Bobnevi. Rather, she lives in half of it. Her village falls squarely along the ‘administrative boundary line’ between Georgia and the occupied territory of so-called South Ossetia. Several years ago, she and her husband woke one morning to find Russian soldiers building a barbed wire fence across the foot of their orchard. It took them two weeks, and she’s been trapped on the other side ever since.
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Georgia’s delicate geopolitical situation, as a country where more than twenty per cent of its sovereign territory is controlled by Russia, has been thrown into sharp relief. So far, with its hands full executing Putin’s ‘special military operation’, Moscow has shown little appetite for stoking tensions in the borderlands, perhaps also owing in part to a notably muted response to the conflict from the ruling Georgian Dream party.
However, Georgia’s president has warned that now is not the time for falling asleep at the wheel, with renewed interest from South Ossetian authorities in the issue of contesting the boundary line begging the question of how long this calm is likely to last.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Since the earliest days of independence from the Soviet Union, ethnic conflict in Georgia has seen Russian forces stationed in the separatist regions of Abkhazia to the west and South Ossetia in the north. After an armed confrontation near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali escalated into a twelve-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin formally recognised these territories as sovereign states, with its soldiers remaining posted in both today.
While the invasion of Ukraine initially raised alarm over the prospect of renewed aggression from Georgia’s breakaway regions, the European Union’s Monitoring Mission in the country says the situation along the administrative boundary line has proven, all things considered, relatively quiet. The Georgian government has also adopted a largely neutral stance on the conflict, repeatedly declining to join sanctions against the Putin regime despite widespread international criticism, in an ongoing bid to avoid provoking Moscow.
Even so, Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili noted in a recent interview that the situation remains unpredictable. “I don’t think Russia will invade Georgia now, but we are already seeing the humiliation of Russia and the fact that they are losing this war,” she told the BBC. “They made a lot of miscalculations, and maybe, at some point in time, for internal reasons, Russia will be tempted to score points in Georgia, where it is easier.”
Last year, the South Ossetian parliament set up a commission to review the current placement of the de-facto border. Specifically, “a discrepancy [of] more than 200 sq. km” just west of the occupied region, “to the detriment of the legitimate territorial interests of the Republic.” That commission has since finished its preliminary inquiries, with its findings apparently soon set to be passed back to the chamber for further debate.
What this may mean for future relations with the breakaway territory is an open but nevertheless fraught question. Ian Kelly, a former US ambassador to Georgia, speculates that renewed talk of the issue may indicate Russia’s willingness to test the balance of tensions in the region, but that ultimately, allowing the line to be contested right now would make little strategic sense. “I don’t see that it’s necessarily in [Russia’s] interests to destabilise this government, given that Georgian Dream is playing along,” he says. “While it could be a trial balloon of sorts, to see how they respond, I’d be surprised if they pursued it.”
Director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, Kornely Kakachia, offers a similar assessment but stresses it’s important to assume a longer-term view of Georgian security. “It all depends what kind of situation Russia will find itself in with Ukraine, in terms of Putin’s image,” he explains. “If they decide for the sake of public opinion, especially with him up for reelection in the next two years, they need a success story, well then they could start a new war.”
For David Katsarava, founder of the activist group Strength in Unity, which monitors the de-facto border, the issue is far more clear-cut. “This plan, unfortunately, is entirely realistic, and I believe so-called South Ossetia will do their best to realise it,” he says. “If there’s a reason it hasn’t started yet, it’s the war in Ukraine, but I’m ninety-nine per cent sure it will happen. It’s just a question of when.”
That relations with South Ossetia have proven relatively calm for the time being is not to say there’s any real quality of life to be had for people immediately on either side of the line.
Valia Vanishvili owns a small farm. Two cows, a few chickens. There are pear and apple and walnut trees in her orchard, intersected by rolls of razor wire that cut through the heart of Bobnevi, a short drive north of Tbilisi. “I’ve not received my pension in five months. If I try to cross the wire, I’ll be arrested,” she says. “I cannot visit my daughter who lives on the other side. Ever since my husband died I’ve not been able to embrace her, and I can’t go to his grave, because the Russians don’t allow me.” As Vanishvili speaks, two border guards move through the bushes further down the hill to take up post behind a wooden shack, watching her every move. She’s eighty-nine years old.
Her story isn’t unique. The issue of “creeping borderization” – Russian forces erecting fences and other structures along the de-facto border, often further forward than demarcated by the official line – has since 2008 been repeatedly condemned by intergovernmental organisations and monitoring agencies on the ground. South Ossetia’s prohibition against almost all humanitarian agencies entering the region also means there are few if any formal channels for Vanishvili to get help running her farm, obtaining basic household items, or even access to medical care. More often than not, she has to rely on Katsarava, who visits when he can to discreetly hand groceries and other things she needs through the barbed fence.
“It’s a very dangerous life. Most of these Georgian citizens, they receive absolutely no attention from our government,” Katsarava says. “From time to time we run campaigns to raise financial support, but it’s difficult to cover all their needs because we just don’t have the funds, and so they have no real support.”
Asked if she’s ever considered leaving, under a program facilitating the reunion of families separated by the conflict, Vanishvili explains it was her husband’s dying wish their property should not fall into Russian hands. It’s her home of sixty-two years, she insists, and it’s where she’ll stay.
The Doctor of Tskhinvali
Creeping borderization is only one tool used by South Ossetia to further control of the areas surrounding the boundary line, going hand in hand with a kind of glacial psychological warfare Katsarava calls the establishment of “fear zones.” This relates not only to the ongoing harassment of people like Vanishvili, who says guards routinely accost her and her daughter, accusing them of illegally distilling vodka, but also targeted kidnappings from within Georgian territory.
“Fear zones are the areas along the occupation line and within the territory controlled by the Georgian government which [have] turned into places where the local population are scared to go, because of Russian occupiers’ threats, robbery, kidnapping and other violence,” an info pack from Strength in Unity states. “As part of [a] soft power war, psychological terror forces [the] depopulation of these places, which is one of the goals of the occupying forces.”
According to Vazha Gaprindashvili, president of the Georgian Society of Orthopaedic Traumatologists, border guards in South Ossetia are actually entitled to perks for making detentions, such as a raise and extra vacation, meaning there’s effectively a bounty out on Georgian citizens. He knows well the trauma of these kidnappings, having himself been detained in 2019 while attempting to visit a patient on the other side of the line.
What set Gaprindishvili’s case aside was that he refused to sign a document declaring he understood he’d entered South Ossetian territory. Many do, and are sometimes able to escape with little more than a fine. Instead, he was taken to a detention centre in Tskhinvali and sentenced to almost two years in prison. In the end, he was freed after just a couple of months, but only because his capture, as a medical professional attempting to help a patient, caused something of a minor international scandal. He’s grateful for the support that secured his release but acutely aware that others are not always so lucky.
“The people in that first cell with me, all of them were injured, one of them badly, his nose was broken,” he says. “The way they detained him, he was out walking with his ten-year-old child when they came across the guards. They beat him with the butt of their rifles and took him away, leaving the child behind alone.”
‘An Illegal Decision by an Illegal De-Facto Government’
Georgia’s Ministry for Reconciliation and Civil Equality, the department charged with monitoring relations with the occupied territories, declined to be interviewed for this story, simply stating that any debate regarding the administrative boundary line by the South Ossetian parliament could only result in “an illegal decision by an illegal de-facto government.”
For Giga Bokeria, a former secretary of the National Security Council and now chairman of the opposition party Movement for Liberty – European Georgia, the government’s muted response to the war in Ukraine reflects a more general policy of “appeasement” toward the Kremlin, one that is only imperilling ties with historic allies at a time when every effort needs to be made toward strengthening them. “Georgia needs to be more protected – that’s the argument we should be making now in Washington and Brussels, where there is finally, if belatedly, a much more sober understanding of Russia’s threat to Euro-Atlantic security,” he says. “Instead, we have this situation where Georgia’s geopolitical standing is deteriorating, and it’s a treasonous mistake to be making.”
Even after ten months, perhaps it is simply still too soon in the day to know what exactly the wider fallout of war in Ukraine will be. At present, as Kornely Kakachia points out, so much remains uncertain, both in terms of what victory or defeat might look like for either Russia or Ukraine, much less what consequences either outcome is likely to have for Georgia. One thing, however, he says is clear. “What the government is trying to do [by remaining neutral], it’s a mirage, and it will not pay off in the long term,” he explains. “Putin’s strategy, he wants to rebuild something like the 19th century Russian Empire, and to have an independent Georgia, that’s simply not acceptable.”
Meanwhile, life for Valia Vanishvili continues much as it has done for the past fourteen years. Her only certainty – a kind of managed, protracted instability. Days spent alone in the orchard, just a few feet and yet a chasm between her and her daughter, picking walnuts under close watch by the wire.