Wednesday, 07 January 2015

No Light at the End of the Tunnel: Obstacles to Revival in the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict Zone

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By Tomáš Baranec (01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In the course of 2014, developments in the Georgian-Ossetian Administrative Border Line (ABL) attained some attention in both Georgian and international media. This was due to renewed fencing activities by the Russian army and the de facto South Ossetian authorities in September 2013. However the roots of the problems, which local dwellers have to face in their daily life, are more acutely linked to the “water embargo” imposed on the region by the South Ossetian de facto authorities and the Russian trade embargo on their agricultural products.

BACKGROUND: While the devastating impact of fencing on affected families should not be underestimated, this is not the issue considered most problematic by local dwellers, compared to other challenges such as the limited access to water and markets for their agricultural products. Also despite the prevailing narrative provided by the media, fencing itself is not always viewed negatively. A negative perception of these activities predominates in the agricultural Gori region, where many orchards have been made inaccessible by fences and many more (especially in Ditsi) are endangered. Conversely, in communities of the mountainous Kareli region, whose economy is based on herding rather than agriculture, fencing is sometimes viewed rather positively since it has improved the security of cattle, which previously often strayed across the ABL rarely to be seen again.

The most striking and immediate problem hitting the region following the 2008 war was the “water embargo” imposed by Tskhinvali. A highly sophisticated and integrated irrigation system was constructed in the Gori region during the Communist era, which allowed cultivation of new lands in the area and thus a significant increase of both production and population. These improvements have been crippled since August 2008, when the de facto South Ossetian authorities closed the flow of water from the Zoncar reservoir to the Terepun channel, which had provided irrigation for most settlements in the area, as well as other smaller channels.

The swift creation of an alternative system (which is expensive and may not work during especially hot summers) spared most of the villages on the Terepun channel from the most drastic consequences of drought. Many others (such as Ditsi and Zaardiantkari) had already been subjected to five years without irrigation in places that for generations before the construction of the system had the character of plains whipped by the dry winds of eastern Georgia. Two years after the war, the harvest diminished drastically in affected villages and people who had previously been able to live a decent life and constructed new houses just a few years ago, found themselves in a spiral of poverty unable to purchase even the most basic drugs or enough firewood. Nowadays, one can see impoverished dwellers cutting their own dry fruit trees in order to obtain additional firewood for harsh winters.

Yet, while the water issue is becoming resolved in most affected villages, communities that were reconnected to irrigation are facing a new harsh reality in which tons of apples end up in rivers. After managing the obstacle of drought, locals now face the consequences of the Russian trade embargo, whereas no alternative market exists with sufficient demand for agricultural products from the area.

IMPLICATIONS: Trade routes from the region traditionally used to lead northwards; short distance roads headed to South Ossetia, while long distance trade roads reached deep into the Russian mainland. On both levels, the direction of trade routes was driven by the different types of natural environment and resources. On a local level, the ABL does not simply mirror the dividing line between two ethnicities; it also marks the difference between two types of agriculture and the products they can offer. Ossetians from the foothills of the Greater Caucasus have found the main market for their products; flour, milk, butter and cattle, not among their kin in North Ossetia who settle in a similar type of environment, but in neighboring Georgian dwellings in the agricultural lowlands. Georgians, on the other hand, have found demand for their products among Ossetians rather than in the Georgian market, which is well supplied by other agricultural regions such as Kakheti or Samegrelo.

The same pattern explains the dependency of local producers on the Russian market in terms of long distance trade. Of all Georgia’s neighbors, only Russia features a predominantly different type of agricultural production than Georgia and thus is the only market able to consume all the local production (in addition to the significant historical Russian appetite for Georgian products). Other neighbors, like Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran, have a similar agricultural production and thus a very limited interest in Georgia’s agricultural goods. On the contrary, they often dominate local markets and push local producers out thanks to their lower prices.

It was the Russian market’s demand for Georgian agricultural products that helped communities in the region overcome the most drastic consequences of Georgia’s socio-economic collapse after the dissolution of the USSR. Moreover, this long distance trade route allowed many families to maintain some of the living standards that they were used to before 1991. Locals claim that during this period, a family with an average orchard, which used to trade in Russian cities, could afford a car, medicine, and all the necessary basic household goods, while families with bigger orchards managed to build new houses or renovate older ones. Generally many of them refer to this period, which featured significant economic decline on a national level, as an era of relative prosperity.

Nowadays the price of apples in Georgia is said to be several times lower than it was in Russia before 2008, and the market has been overwhelmed by cheaper Turkish agricultural products. In more than 100 interviews conducted in the area, the absence of demand for agricultural products was the most frequently mentioned obstacle to the local economy’s recovery from the conflict. Even communities with proper irrigation and good harvests are stuck in deep poverty and debts as they are unable to sell their produce. It is important to realize that growing apples is often the only means for locals in this area with nearly absolute unemployment to live in a country lacking a proper social system and to earn the much-needed money for firewood, electricity and medicines. The levels of desperation are well illustrated by the fact that Georgians were recently offered 1 GEL (around 40 Euro-cents) for 25 kilograms of apples. Most of the locals agree that any kind of recovery in the region is barely possible without the reopening of the Russian market.

CONCLUSIONS: The existing situation has one significant implication. Under conditions of desperation most of the interviewed locals claimed to be indifferent toward any kind of integration with the West or Russia based on ideology or values, and would prefer whichever that could ease their hardship. Therefore once the Russian market is re-opened for local agricultural production and money again starts to flow in, the Kremlin could obtain an increased leverage on the Georgian government. Under such circumstances, any Russian threats regarding the reintroduction of the trade embargo on such products, in connection with Georgia’s pro-western orientation, could spark waves of anger in this region in particular, anger which could under some circumstances be aimed towards Tbilisi rather than the Kremlin.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Tomáš Baranec is a graduate of Charles University in Prague. His research interests include nationalism and factors of ethnic conflicts and separatism in the Caucasus. He currently lives in Georgia where he continues his field research into current separatist movements in the region and monitors the situation on the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line.

(Image Attribution: Wikimapia)

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