By Ofelya Sargsyan, Editor of European Union Foreign Affairs Journal
As the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs state on July 10 the Russian troops moved the demarcation line between South Ossetia and the rest of the Georgian territory, placing the so-called “border” on the territory close to the village of Tsitelubani of Gori municipality and the village of Orchosani in occupied Akhalgori district adjacent to the Tbilisi-Gori central highway.
The incident occurred soon after Georgia concluded and air defense treaty with France and NATO launched its “Fragile Spirit” multi-national trainings in the country. The movement of the “state border” markers for 450 meters further into Georgia from the South Ossetia demarcation line by the Russian troops, assumes that the local Georgian farmers will lose 10 hectares of wheat fields and cattle pastures. Furthermore, it means that a 1.6 km-long segment of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline will fall under the control of Russia. Owned by the British Petroleum (BP), the pipeline is also known as the Western Route Export Pipeline (WREP). Running from Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea terminal of Supsa, it has 833 km in length and a capacity of 145,000 barrels a day. However, BP Chief Spokesman in Georgia Gia Gvaladze stated that the change would mean nothing, with them needing no physical access to preserve the pipe. Another spokesperson of BP Georgia; Tamila Chantladze, stated on July 13 that WREP was operating was operating as normal and along the international standards. In his turn, Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze assured that Georgia will reroute the Baku-Supsa pipeline around the de-facto border in case there is any problem to its functioning
While both Georgia and the international community keep accusing Russia on breaking international law and violating the territorial integrity of another state, Russia rejects its role, stating that its troops had been patrolling the same administrative border since the 2008 Russian Georgian war over South Ossetia.
As such during the phone conversation between Head of Georgian Delegation in the Geneva International Discussions David Dondua and Head of Russia’s delegation in Geneva Discussions, Grigori Karasin on 13 July 2015, Mr Karasin stated that the banners marking the “state border” were exactly on the same place where they stood until April 18, 2015, when they were shown during a TV show of the Georgian TV Channel “Imedi”. Furthermore, the diplomat highlighted that the Georgian side was well aware that there was no border movement.
On the other hand, Georgia condemns Russia on illegal replacement of banners. Furthermore, the MFA of Georgia considers the Russian action as a continuation of the so-called “borderization” process within Georgia which breaches the 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement and the fundamental principles of the international law. Hence, Georgia calls the international community for support and measures against Russia for violating the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
As mentioned above, solidarity with Georgia has also expressed the international community.
To the point the EU reaffirmed its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. Describing Russian step as “provocative” the Union and its monitoring mission (EUMM) called for deploying such tools as the Geneva International Discussions and the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) to neutralize tensions. This is also in line with the UN statement, made on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who highlighted the negative impact on the daily lives of the locals because of the developments on the demarcation line.
The President of the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Jean-Claude Frécon, also apart from condemning Russia, expressed the concern that “The moving of the demarcation line beyond the villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani placing the Baku-Supsa pipeline under the control of the Russian forces creates a further risk of destabilising the whole Region”.
Furthermore, in her statement Anne Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), acknowledged the alarming aspect of the actions and reiterated the Assembly’s support for the territorial integrity of Georgia.
Russian actions were officially criticized also by a number of individual states, such as Latvia, Lithuanian, Ukraine, Romania, Japan.
Reaction to the issue came also from the USA. To the point, while the US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, described the land-grab as a step to “humiliate and provoke” Georgia’s pro-Western government, John Kirby, spokesperson of the US department of State, urged Russia to implement the provisions of the 2008 ceasefire agreement and withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions, recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Georgian regions as well as enable free entry for humanitarian aid to these regions.
Meanwhile, on July 19, 2015, the Georgian Minister of Defence Nina Khidasheli declared that Russia us testing Georgia’s patience, attempting to enroll it into a conflict which is unacceptable for the Georgian government.
Yet, the situation has generated a number of protest by activists and journalists. To the point, on July 14 more than 50 Georgian journalists held a protest “NO to Occupation” in the village of Khurvaleti and crashed the newly-established border sign saying “Republic of South Ossetia” and set there a Georgian flag which was however replaced by the Russian and South Ossetian armed forces two days later. Another demonstration with thousand protesters took place outside the State Chancellery building in central Tbilisi on July 18. Apart from the slogans like “Stop Russia”, the protestors also criticized Irakli Garibashvili’s government for being week and incompetent to withstand the Russian creeping occupation. Moreover, several of the protest organizing groups – among them the television station Rustavi-2, magazine Tabula and NGOs Georgian Democracy Initiative and Georgia’s Reforms Associates – seem to be in favor of the United National Movement (UNM), the party of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Notable is also the fact that also a number of well-known public figures participated and were even among the organizers of the rally. As such, Salome Samadashvili, once Georgia’s ambassador to the EU, talked against the Russian politics, highlighting that it is time for Georgia to become a modern European state. Also, Giga Bedinishvili, editor-in-Chief of Tabula magazine, mocked the current set-up of the Georgian-Russian bilateral relations which presupposes face-to-face meetings between Georgia’s special envoy for Russia Zurab Abashidze and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, whose last meeting was in on 15 July in Prague. He stated that the framework was suggested by UNM parliamentarians, coining the Garibashvili government as “defeatism”
Yet, some locals expressed concerns regarding the protests, stating that they further exacerbate the living conditions in the immediate vicinity of the administrative border. Moreover, on July 17 the police limited the entry of non-locals to the territory.As a resonse, the Prime Minister of the country, Irakli Garibashvili, accused the UNM of leaving the country with 25,000 internally displaced people and 150 villages out of central government control. He also called to come and urged the opposition not to intervene in the government’s efforts in settling the Problem.o solve the situation a meeting was held on July 20 in Ergneti under the auspices of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), co-facilitated by Kęstutis Jankauskas, the Head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM), and Ambassador Angelo Gnaedinger, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-office for the South Caucasus. The Georgian Interior Ministry officials and representatives of the de-facto authorities of South Ossetia agreed that the local Georgian population can have access to their farmlands which are now within the within the territory of South Ossetia. Additionally, the return of Vazha Totladze, a Georgian citizen of the village of Knolevi in Kareli district who was kidnapped from his garden by armed men and taken into South Ossetia on 18 July, was agreed upon. Yet, the South Ossetian side refused to remove the border signs, installed by the Russian troops as well as declined to return the Georgian flag that the Russian forces had taken down.
As seen, while the current Georgian Dream coalition government came to power promising to improve the relationship with Moscow, the latest developments demonstrate, that Russia even furthered its positions in South Ossetia with the new border signs having been set and so far seem to remain there. To note, this is not the first incident of line-drawing in South Ossetia – it has been separating itself from Georgia, installing wired fences since 2008. However, notwithstanding its claims for independence, as a matter of fact it lacks autonomous infrastructures, with its budget, economy, and almost all political processes being controlled by the Russian Federation. Furthermore, the Russian border guards control and detain trespassers along the demarcation lines. Russia finances its border signs, fences as well as tracking cameras. South Ossetia also concluded a military agreement with Russia, entitling the latter to protect the disputed territory. With these aspects at stake, Georgia has limited options to act.
It cannot set border forces since it does not recognize the South Ossetian independence, thus, that border being nonexistent to it. The country does not want another military upheavel, either. Hence, it remains for the country to talk against the situation, present its concerns and describe the actions as illegal and provocative and call for international reactions and actions. Yet, there seems to be little opportunity, if ever, that Georgia will be able to regain the 20% of its territory. It looks like everyone will eventually accept the new borders as in the Crimean case. But Germany was also reunited after 45 years.
This article will be updated and published in EUFAJ 3/15, appearing in the first half of August 2015. See then http://www.eufaj.eu