On the seventh anniversary of the Russian-Georgian War, signs are building of renewed tensions along Georgia’s borders. Keep an eye on developments in South Ossetia.
Georgian soldiers stand with national flags during a memorial ceremony honoring soldiers killed in last August's war with Russia, in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: AP
The anniversary of the "Five-Day War" between Russia and Georgia is approaching. Seven years ago, in August 2008, the latest round of the two ethno-political conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia ended with Russian military intervention and recognition of the independence of these former autonomies of the Georgian SSR, which, incidentally, for the previous 15-year period had existed as unrecognized entities de facto outside the jurisdiction of official Tbilisi.
Today, the events of seven years ago have been pushed to the margins of the information agenda by Ukraine. But back then in 2008, a new status quo began to take shape in the South Caucasus. As the hitherto mediator in the settlement of the two conflicts, Moscow assumed the role of military and political guarantor of Abkhaz and South Ossetian self-determination (not self-determination per se, just secession from Georgia).
Despite the departure of Mikheil Saakashvili (the main irritant in relations with Moscow), the Georgian government has since strengthened its policy of European and North Atlantic integration, although the NATO Membership Action Plan and proposed visa-free regime with the EU remain pipe dreams.
The normalization of Russian-Georgian relations, announced in late 2012, is in a state of stagnation. Although the confrontational rhetoric has abated on both sides, neither is prepared to abandon its openly stated "red lines" on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or cooperation with NATO.
This halfway house does not suit Tbilisi or its Western backers. However, rhetoric aside, there seems to be no appetite for a radical reshaping of the status quo. At the same time, unresolved issues refuse to go away.
Come summer 2015, on the eve of another "hot August" anniversary, the border issue has cropped up again. Journalists, experts and diplomats describe the building-up of the frontier between partially recognized South Ossetia and Georgia as "borderization."
The story is a graphic reminder that the disparate members of the political processes on Russia's southern borders exist in different political and legal realities. Whereas Russia and its South Ossetian protectorate recognize the Georgian-South Ossetian state border, the safety of which is guaranteed by Russia under intergovernmental agreements with Georgia's erstwhile (now independent) republic, for Tbilisi the border with its former autonomy is no more than an administrative boundary temporarily occupied by its northern neighbor.
The latter view is shared by the United States and its NATO and EU allies, which insist on respect for Georgia's territorial integrity. Georgia has never recognized South Ossetia's legal subjectivity since the abolition of the autonomy in December 1990, regardless of who happened to be the country's president or prime minister at any given time.
This summer the head of the Georgian government, Irakli Garibashvili, recalled the protection of national interests in "Samachablo" (the informal name for South Ossetia after the Machabeli line of Georgian princes).
The process of borderization dates back to the spring of 2013, when South Ossetia, supported by Russia, began erecting border signs and barbed wire. Tbilisi spoke of Moscow's desire to penetrate further into Georgian territory and limit the fundamental rights of the local population (free movement and access to agricultural resources, health services and education).
Since then, the problem has repeatedly been discussed under the Joint Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism on the Georgian-South Ossetian border, as well as during talks between Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin. The last meeting between the Russian and Georgian diplomats was, in the words of Abashidze, a "highly charged conversation."
Every new surge of altercation and borderization is accompanied by public animation inside Georgia. The result is protests and demonstrations (such as the tearing down of a banner with the words "Republic of South Ossetia") in the immediate vicinity of the disputed border, which Russian and South Ossetian officials describe as provocations.
The asymmetry of Moscow and Tbilisi's perception of the problem is telling. The building-up of the border is seen in Russia as a minor regional issue. In Georgia, however, it is near the top of the political agenda. Whereas for Moscow the difference between 100 and 300 meters is negligible, for Georgian politicians and experts their country is too small to give up even one meter.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that in July 2015, after the installation of border signs on the Khurvaleti-Orchosani line, an approximately one-mile stretch of the strategically important Baku-Supsa oil pipeline ended up inside territory controlled by South Ossetia.
Meanwhile, the roots of today's border issue lie in the Georgian-Ossetian ethno-political conflict of the early 1990s. Unlike Abkhazia, the authorities of the unrecognized republic received much less territorial control. The leadership of the abolished autonomy retained the Tskhinvali, Java, Znauri and part of the Akhalgori (Leningor) districts. At the same time, Tbilisi kept control over part of the Akhalgori district and the Georgian villages of Tamarasheni, Kurta, Kekhvi and Achabeti in the Tskhinvali district (the so-called "Liakhvi corridor" named after the Liakhvi river).
Still, the leaders of South Ossetia did not have "complete control" over "their territory." Because the unrecognized republic's capital Tskhinvali was cut off from the Java district by the Georgian villages in the Liakhvi corridor, most Georgian villages in South Ossetia became almost enclaves under the jurisdiction of Tbilisi. Relations with the South Ossetian authorities were conducted through joint peacekeeping forces.
Legal confusion arose when villages with mixed ethnic populations became subordinate to different administrations. Unlike Abkhazia, 1990s South Ossetia had not yet undergone the mass expulsion of Georgians (that happened in 2008), which made the infrastructure of the unrecognized entity vulnerable.
Given a positive negotiation process and a peaceful settlement, such territorial configuration would not have been a serious issue. Moreover, the potential cohabitation of Georgians and Ossetians gave Tbilisi hope of reintegrating the abolished autonomy of South Ossetia into a united Georgian state with a higher status. However, were the negotiations to stagnate and the conflict to "unfreeze," such "chessboard" ethno-territorial configuration posed a direct threat to the political existence of South Ossetia, which was confirmed by the later events of 2004-2008.
Thus, the decisive role in the border demarcation was played not by the imperial chicanery of Moscow, but the four-year unfreezing of the conflict with an attempt to revise the Dagomys Agreements of 1992 and strip Russia of its role as exclusive guarantor of the first post-Soviet status quo. Hence Tskhinvali 's tough stance with respect to today's borderization.
South Ossetia (backed by Russia) believes that its border with Georgia should be based on the proposal of the Boundary Commission of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region dated December 21, 1921. Tbilisi believes that the border should follow the de facto confrontation line that existed between 1992 and 2008, whereupon it is viewed as an administrative, not transnational boundary.
The result is deadlock. Moscow has proposed negotiations between Tbilisi and South Ossetia, in which regard the Georgian authorities see Tskhinvali as a Kremlin puppet. Moreover, the task of borderization is not a top priority for Moscow, which sees in it the natural completion of the "Five-Day War" and the legitimization of the new status quo.
But it would be emotionally rash to suggest that the dispute over borderization will result in a major new unfreezing of the conflict. Moscow considers its task in respect of Georgia to be largely resolved (whether that is justified or not is another matter). It would like the international community to "recognize the new realities," although the issue is not critical for the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Georgia's political and expert community is increasingly (albeit unofficially) warming to the idea that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are potential stumbling blocks on the road toward NATO and the EU. That said, the key issue here is the question of how far borderization will go.
If it is carried through with no significant advance into Georgian territory beyond the bounds of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region, the rhetoric will remain just that. But if the present status quo is shattered (by the inclusion of South Ossetia in the Russian Federation or the penetration of "core Georgia"), more active international intervention is possible, which will see the move as an extension of Crimea.
However, there are no grounds as yet to believe that Moscow is plotting a radical offensive in the direction of Georgia. More likely, the talk is about consolidating the old Soviet borders in the new circumstances.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.