Borderline life: Georgia and South Ossetia

“This is a frozen conflict, but it shouldn’t become a forgotten one. Three actions are required from Russia to solve the conflict: fulfilling unconditionally all the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, ceasing „borderisation“ on the administrative boundary line and refraining from advancing further into Georgian territory, and allowing for the return of all displaced Georgian citizens”. (David McAllister, MEP, European Parliament, 14 June 2018)

On June 14, 2018, the European Parliament unanimously passed the resolution “Georgian occupied territories 10 years after the Russian invasion”. This resolution addresses a range of violations of international conduct by the Russian Federation regarding the Georgian separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, all directly or indirectly a result of the Russian intervention in August 2008, nearly 10 years ago. While this resolution was discussed and passed, new instances of the condemned actions in the region were happening, under Russia’s watch, such as kidnapping and detention of civilians and military exercises.

View to IDP settlement near Khurvaleti village and South Ossetia (May 2018)
View to South Ossetia and the IDP settlement near Khurvaleti village.

Life around the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) has become harder and more complicated over the last 10 years, especially for the locals (mostly Georgians) on either side of the ABL who have dependencies on both sides, such as farm lands, relatives etc. In this page I will highlight some of the fundamental points of the EP resolution.

Violations of ceasefire agreement 12 August 2008

Just days after the outbreak of the “Five day war” between Russia and Georgia in the night of 7-8 August 2008, European diplomatic efforts under the leadership of then French President Sarkozy resulted in a 6-point ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia. It stopped Russian forces to pursue Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. So far, Russia has refused to fulfill its obligations under this agreement, most notably withdrawing its forces from Georgian territory.

Two weeks after signing this agreement, Russia decided to recognize the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Something it had refused to do since their respective declarations of independence in 1991 and 1992, and still refuses to do so regarding other separatist regions in former Soviet republics (Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh in Azerbaijan, occupied by Armenia and even the two “republics” in the Ukrainian Donbas). It is obvious why Russia decided to recognize the regions: it enabled Russia to legitimize its military presence in both regions outside of the existing peacekeeping mandates, under the pretext that these regions are not Georgian territory (by its own definition).

The 6-point agreement stipulates that Russian forces have to withdraw to “positions held before hostilities began in South Ossetia”. Since the war, Russia has an estimated 4-5000 troops in each of both regions, including tanks, missile launchers and other offensive material, which by far exceeds the pre-conflict “peacekeeping” presence. Just about every month military exercises are held in South Ossetia which vary in size from a few hundred troops to full war game exercises with thousands of personnel. The compounds of the bases have been completed in recent years with family apartments for the military personel, with all the facilities, indicating the military presence is long term, and can be considered an occupation.

EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) at the South Ossetian ABL
EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) at the South Ossetian ABL

Furthermore, the 6-point agreement stipulates international peace monitors and humanitarian aid should be granted access to the regions. The opposite has happened. Both the OSCE and UN missions in the Georgian regions had to shut down after Russia vetoed the extension of both mandates per 2009. The newly created EUMM (EU Monitoring Mission) in 2008 operates from three field offices in Georgia controlled territory and is refused access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The EP therefore calls on Russia to “unconditionally fulfil all the provisions of the ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008, in particular the commitment to withdrawing all its military forces from the territory of Georgia” and “to allow the EUMM unconditional access to the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia as per its mandate”.

Freedom of movement and “borderisation”

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state” (Article 13.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been internal administrative regions since the early years of the Georgian Soviet Republic. The South Ossetian administrative boundary line which is used as reference point by both Russia and de facto South Ossetian authorities was artificially created by the Soviets after they rewarded the Ossetians with autonomy. Ossetians only settled in the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli as late as the 17th century. This can be considered the root of today’s problems regarding the separation forced upon the local population on either side of the boundary line, most specifically impacting Georgians. When the boundary was drawn in the early 1920’s it included many (ethnic) Georgian villages within the region, and other (indigenous) Georgian lands, despite protests at the time.

Borderization South Ossetia
Borderization South Ossetia: Green border posts and barbed wire

Since the 2008 war efforts took place by the Russians and South Ossetians to formalize the de facto border and make it (more) visible in the land. Green border signs appeared behind the administrative boundary line, discouraging locals to pass beyond the sign, even when their legitimate farmland was on the other side. From 2011 a more drastic approach took off, when so called border troops placed fences and barbed wires, physically separating villages and communities from each other. In intimidating moves, the green border signs and fences frequently inch farther into the Georgian controlled land, sometimes just 100 meter, sometimes a kilometer.

In total over 70 km of the 350 km boundary line has been fenced, especially in the southern more populated areas. As this has drawn a lot of international attention over the years, a new approach has taken course in the last two years: trenching. Under the banner of creating fire trenches, the Ossetian security forces have been digging trenches through farmland along the official Administrative Boundary Line, which has the same impact on the local population discouraging acces to their lands.

South Ossetia: Life behind barbed wire
South Ossetia: Life behind barbed wire

Where does this leave the locals? Not only have they been physically barred from access to the other side of the administrative boundary, they are not allowed to cross the boundary as well. South Ossetian border guards, operating under the command of Russian authorities, detain villagers on a weekly base, and take them to the regional capital of Tskhinvali, only to be released after paying a month worth of income. Last February a Georgian citizen died in South Ossetian detention after being arrested for alleged illegally crossing the border, causing public outcry, especially due to the suspicious circumstances under which this happened. Pensioners living on the South Ossetian side cannot collect their (Georgian) pensions, and cannot pay with Georgian currency, and farmers cannot harvest their lands.

When accessing your own land is treated as trespassing.

Local children cannot get education in the Georgian state language, as in South Ossetia these schools have been abolished, and crossing the boundary has been made very hard for them. This restriction on crossing the boundary also impacts medical care. South Ossetia lacks specialist medical care, and the clinics are sub-standard. Many residents of South Ossetia travel to Georgia to receive free medical aid. From capital Tskhinvali, normally a trip of roughly 1 hour to Tbilisi, they have to travel via the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, a trip of two days.

South Ossetia and security incidents
South Ossetia: security incidents at the Administrative Boundary Line over the last few years. Most notably kidnappings of local residents (red pins).

All of this restricts the basic human right of freedom of movement within the state, and Russia, being the sponsor of the South Ossetian de facto authorities, has therefore been called upon by the European Parliament (and the UN) to honor these basic human rights principles of freedom of movement: “Reminds the Russian Federation, as an occupying power, of its obligations towards the population and that it must cease violations of human rights, restrictions on freedom of movement and residence, discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, and infringement of the right to property and access to education in the native language in the occupied territories of Georgia”

Absorption

In 2015, Russia signed a so called “Integration and Alliance Treaty” with the South Ossetian de facto authorities. Something it had already done in 2014 with Abkhazia. This treaty incorporates the South Ossetian military and security forces into Russia’s armed forces, placing them under Russian command, integrate the customs service of South Ossetia into that of Russia, and establish economic integration. In other words, this is nothing short of formalizing what has already been nicknamed “creeping annexation”, which runs against principles of international law.

What’s more, the South Ossetian leadership has repeatedly announced a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, and uniting with North Ossetia-Alania (which it calls historically incorrect “reunification”). So far, the green light for such referendum has not been given by the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the local leadership has been continuing a rhetoric of “reunion” with their northern neighbour, and proposed to alter the name of the region into “South Ossetia-Alania”.

A Step to a Better Future

On a brighter note, the Georgian government recently launched a new peace initiative, ‘A Step to a Better Future’, that is targeted at stimulating direct people to people interaction, in lack of succes on a higher official level. At the core of this plan is enhancing commercial activity from South Ossetia and Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia, and also the European Union. In 2014 Georgia signed the Association Agreement (free trade) with the EU, which became active in 2016. Georgia is now offering both regions the ability to export to the EU through the free trade conditions via Georgia. Also, access to Georgian state services such as higher education is simplified.

That said, the plan has not been received well, despite its sympathetic look. Not surprisingly. This plan is not presented in dialogue with the Abkhaz and Ossetians, but rather forced upon them, despite its good intentions. But good intentions are not good enough. The step to a better future between Georgians, Ossetians and Abkhaz is still far away. Resolutions and unilateral plans won’t change that. It’s too little and too late.

What needs to change is recognizing the (South) Ossetian and Abkhazian people as equal partners of dialogue. Which won’t happen anytime soon. In the meantime Russia will continue cutting both regions loose from Georgia, for good, and absorb them itself. An ongoing proces to which nobody has the answer to stop.

Text and photography: Jelger Groeneveld

 

Note: for popular reference “South Ossetia” is used instead of the Georgian official reference “Tskhinvali Region”, which does not imply a position on the status of the region.

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