While the world watches Syria, Russia is creeping closer to Georgia

Concrete bollards mark the "border" between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia outside Gori, Georgia. The ...

Concrete bollards mark the “border” between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia outside Gori, Georgia. The Russian and Ossetian flags can be seen in the distance. Photo: New York Times


Jariasheni, Georgia: Marked in places with barbed wire laid at night, in others by the sudden appearance of green signs declaring the start of a “state border” and elsewhere by the arrival of bulldozers, the reach of Russia keeps inching forward into Georgia – with ever more ingenious markings of a frontier that only Russia and three other states recognise as real.

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-storey house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards.

That track marks the world’s newest and perhaps oddest international frontier; the elastic boundary between Georgian-controlled land and the Republic of South Ossetia, a self-proclaimed breakaway state financed, defended and controlled by Moscow.

There is no fence or barbed wire, but Tatiashvili does not dare to cross the track to visit his house for fear of being arrested, as his elderly neighbour was, by Russian border guards.

“It is too dangerous for me to go home,” he said, complaining that the boundary has become so mobile that nobody really knows its final destination. Tatiashvili now lives in his brother’s house, away from the border in the village centre.

The destitute mountainous area of South Ossetia first declared itself independent from Georgia in 1990, but nobody outside the region paid much attention until Russia invaded in August 2008 and recognised South Ossetia’s claims to statehood.

With that, the territory joined Abkhazia in western Georgia, the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria and eastern Ukraine as a “frozen zone”, an area of Russian control within neighbouring states, useful for things like preventing a NATO foothold or destabilising the host country at opportune moments.

The leader of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, has said he plans to hold a referendum like the one in Crimea in 2014 on whether to request annexation by Russia.

“Russia starts right here,” Tatiashvili said, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land.

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day?” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

So tangled is the dispute over what land belongs to whom that each side has its own definition of the line. Russia and South Ossetia insist it is a border like any other – Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru also recognise it – while Georgia calls it “the occupation line”. The European Union, which has about 200 unarmed police officers in Georgia to monitor the agreement that ended the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, also says there is no actual border, only an “administrative boundary line”.

Kestutis Jankauskas, head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia, said it was hard to know where this boundary line exactly runs. It was never recognised or agreed upon, and its location depends on which maps are used. Russia, he said, is using a map drawn by the Soviet military’s general staff in the 1980s.

As happened when the two pro-Russian regions of eastern Ukraine declared themselves independent states in 2014 and said they would like to be absorbed by Russia, President Vladimir Putin has mostly feigned ignorance of what his country’s surrogates are up to in Georgia.

Asked in April about South Ossetia’s plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia, Putin suggested that Moscow was mostly a bystander. But if South Ossetia wants to hold a referendum, Putin said, “we cannot resist it”.

Full article: While the world watches Syria, Russia is creeping closer to Georgia (Sydney Morning Herald)

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