The Aftermath of Russo-Georgian Conflict: A Creeping Occupation of Georgian Territory
The Russo-Georgian 2008 conflict has officially ended eleven years ago, but there are still tensions on the border between Georgia and de facto states—South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since 2008, Russia and the pro-Russia forces of the occupied territories have been gradually moving the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) into the Georgian territory. The gradual moving of the border or ‘borderisation’ violates human rights and poses a serious threat to Georgian national security as well as regional stability.
As a result of the 2008 conflict, the two Georgian regions—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—became de facto independent states under Russian protectorate with Russian military bases being established on their territories. The ABL was meant as a symbolic border to mark the limits of breakaway regions and their autonomy without the attributes of a conventional border such as fences. However, after the conflict ended, the Georgian villages close to the ABL, noticed the construction of a physical border such as the installation of fences, barbed wire, and metal poles the process which is named— ‘borderisation’. Often, these were installed beyond the ABL on the Tbilisi Administered Territory. According to the OSCE, since 2008 at least 40 kilometres of a barbed wire fence was constructed. McCain institute has recorded 155 instances of ‘borderisation’ since 2011. Usually, it happens gradually over a certain period of time: days or sometimes months. As recent as in September 2019, the EU Monitoring Mission has recorded South Ossetian security forces placed “a number of borderisation features” such as ‘state border’ signs and flags on the Tbilisi Administered Territory, 1.3 kilometres (0.8 miles) beyond the ABL. The most recent incident, however, was at the end of October 2019, when the EU Monitoring Mission “observed new fencing being installed”.
Russia denies moving the border but noted that all the border-related issues should be discussed with the de-facto South Ossetian officials. According to the Amnesty International report, there are ten Russian security services bases on the border between South Ossetia and Georgia, and moving the border is unlikely to have happened without their assistance. The presence of the Russian forces increases the risk of escalation of the border tensions and making it dangerous for the Georgian army to patrol the ABL.
The creeping occupation not only violates Georgian sovereignty it also abuses human rights. As the border is being moved, some Georgians living near the ABL suddenly find that their houses in Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The problem is especially serious on the border with South Ossetia. The majority of people in villages adjacent to the ABL are farmers and as the border moves people’s land, farms and houses appear on the opposite territory. For example, Amiran Gugutishvili — an elderly resident in the village near the ABL with South Ossetia whose sole income was from selling apples from his orchard lost access to a part of his land in 2017 as Russians or South Ossetian de facto officials installed a ‘state border’ sign and a fence that runs across his garden. Also, in August 2019, according to a Georgian news agency, the ABL was moved by about 100 meters, and two residential houses ended up beyond the newly-installed border. In such instances people have the choice: stay in their homes and be isolated from the rest of the village and their families or abandon their homes to remain in Georgia. The ‘borderisation’ separates families and leaves people without a source of income. Those people who cross the border into the de facto South Ossetian territory may get arrested by Russian or South Ossetian forces. According to the 2019 Amnesty International report, there are on average 10 detentions per month on the South Ossetian side of ABL for “crossing the border illegally”.
The ‘borderisation’ threatens Georgia’s national security and trade in the region as the newly installed border is moving closer to the key highway and an oil pipeline. The East-West highway is a transit corridor for freight, oil, and natural gas that goes across South Caucuses. If disturbed, it could damage the trade in the region and paralyse half of Georgia. According to some reports, the ABL in some parts of the border is a mere 400 meters (0.2 miles) from the highway. Apart from the possible disruption of the main artery in the country, the ‘borderisation’ poses a threat to the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, which has the capacity to transport 145,000 barrels of oil per day, and which is close to the ABL.
The maps below show the proximity of the ABL to the Baku-Supsa pipeline and the highway which are parallel to each other:
Perhaps, the reason Russia or pro-Russian forces employ such tactics is to threaten Georgian infrastructure and in case border tensions escalate Russia would be able to inflict economic and political damage by disrupting trade. Finally, given Russian hostility to NATO and the fear of having its members near Russian borders, these tactics could be directed at hindering Georgian admittance to NATO. There is little Georgian government can do to resolve the ‘borderisation’ issue without escalating it, and so it seems it could escalate further in the near future.