Wednesday, 02 October 2013

Russia Continues Border Demarcation in South Ossetia

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Archil Zhorzholiani (the 02/10/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In mid-September, the Russian troops restored the installation of fences or the so called “borderization” process along the South Ossetia administrative boundary line (ABL) in the vicinity of the villages Ditsi and Khurvaleti. 

Russia started setting up barbed wire fences in April-May 2011. By now, the border guard troops of the Russian Federal Security Service have erected wire fences along a section of about 22-25 kilometers of the ABL, which is 250 kilometers in total. The intensive installation of metal fencing posts was renewed in February, 2013. After a short suspension, another wave of installations began in mid-September.

The borderization process has shifted the ABL deeper into Georgian-controlled territory, restricting the freedom of movement across the conflict zone as well as inhabitant’s access to water for irrigation. In many cases, the wire fences has cut local residents off from land plots and cemeteries, which has surged tensions in villages surrounding the ABL. On September 17, residents of the Ditsi village clashed with the chief of South Ossetia’s border guard service, Robert Gazayev. Later, Gazayev even rowed with journalists who arrived at the scene to cover the incident.

The EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) facilitated an ad hoc meeting between Georgian and South Ossetian officials to deal with the case. EUMM called on the parties to focus on the local community’s concerns that were raised anew by the developments in mid- September.

The process of borderization intensified after President Vladimir Putin endorsed a proposal by the Russian government proposal to sign an agreement on the state border between Russia and South Ossetia. The decree published on September 12 said that Putin had directed the Russian Foreign Ministry to hold talks with South Ossetia and sign a specific treaty on behalf of Russia upon reaching an agreement. Murat Jioyev, a representative of South Ossetia’s commission on delimitation and demarcation, said the breakaway region’s government is currently preparing a border agreement for signing.

The Georgian ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) sent a note of protest to Russia via the embassy of Switzerland. The document would have no legitimacy and would be deemed invalid in accordance with international norms, the Georgian MFA stated.

On September 20, the U.S. called on Moscow to comply with the commitments stipulated in the August 2008 ceasefire agreement and its obligations under international humanitarian law. It condemned “the increased pace” of wire fence installation near the villages Ditsi and Khurvaleti that “further separates families and neighbors, and has a profound negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of populations on both sides of the barbed wire, cutting off local communities from their farm land, keeping children from attending school, and blocking access to cemeteries.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry blamed Tbilisi for stirring “propagandistic hysteria” over the borderization process and termed as “absolutely legitimate” the actions taken by the Tskhinvali authorities to reinforce “state borders.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement rejected Tbilisi’s claims about shifting the border line and accused the Georgian police of artificially organizing protest rallies across the conflict zone accompanied by a biased media coverage like the case in the vicinity of Ditsi on September 17, the statement said.

President Mikheil Saakashvili insisted that moving the line deeper into the Georgian-controlled areas ended the speculations about President Putin’s personal hatred against him.  Russia is attacking Georgia’s sovereignty and its interests regardless of who is in government, he said.

In a political talk show on Imedi TV on September 27, Saakashvili asserted that Moscow was obtaining Georgian land without paying any price for it. The country should not lose in peacetime what it maintained during the war, he said. In the same show, former diplomat and healthcare minister Zurab Tchiaberashvili slammed the government for not employing all possible legal leverage against Russia. He said the Georgian government should have informed the European Court about the violations of the European Convention on Human Rights taking place in Georgian villages, and in particular about the breach of articles 2 and 3 of the convention that protects the right to life and prohibits degrading treatment. The European Court imposes temporary measures on its member states in such cases and this advantage should have been utilized, Tchiaberashvili said.

Another guest on the show, former deputy foreign minister Sergi Kapanadze stressed that a further relocation of the ABL might leave the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline outside Georgian-controlled territory, which would certainly have dramatic consequences for Georgia.

Two days earlier, Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili declared that the resumption of borderization was linked to the Kremlin’s anxiety regarding the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. “Much will be clarified probably after the Olympics. At this stage all these barbwires, I think, is not even in the interest of [Russia], but the Olympics is of major importance for Russia,” he said.

However, the PM’s assumption on linkages between the Olympics and borderization is questionable since the installation of fences started several years before the Olympics. It seems that by such statements Ivanishvili seeks to downplay the potential consequences of the process and convince the Georgian population to be patient ahead of the Olympics, hoping that Russia’s policies will become less aggressive after the games are concluded.

Yet, such hopes seem overoptimistic. If the resumption of borderization is Russia’s reaction to the Georgian government’s rapprochement efforts, then the Kremlin is unlikely to change its attitude towards the breakaway regions. It is more likely that the borderization process will continue to stir unrest on the Georgian side of the ABL, given the limitations it imposes on the local population’s ability to carry out agricultural work or accessing emergency medical services. 

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