This week marks the eighth anniversary of the Russo-Georgia War — an early testing ground for Russia’s hybrid war techniques. Since that time, Russia has annexed Crimea, occupied eastern Ukraine and probed the resolve of America’s frontline allies from the Baltic to the Black Sea. But what has become of frontline Georgia? In the latest Europe’s Edge, CEPA’s Larry Luxner reports from the new frontier of Russian revisionism in the Eastern Black Sea region. He finds is that Russia’s strategy of “grab, stab and hold” is exceptionally difficult to undo.
Twenty-five years after Georgia declared its independence from the crumbling USSR and eight years after Russian troops invaded the former Soviet republic, Georgia’s 3.9 million inhabitants still live in relative fear of their northern neighbor.
On the first day of a recent five-day press trip, meticulously arranged by the Georgian Embassy in Washington, this reporter and three colleagues traveled by military escort to Tskhinvali — a town about 70 kilometers from Tbilisi, the capital, and only five kilometers from the main highway. As traffic zoomed by, modern shopping centers gradually gave way to little villages and then crumbling huts.
Then the dirt road on which we were traveling ended abruptly, and there, looming ahead, was an expanse of barbed wire stretching 51 kilometers into the distance.
This was the de facto “administrative border” thrown up by Russian troops in 2011 to separate Georgia from the self-declared republic of South Ossetia. The journalists quickly gathered their cameras and clambered down an embankment.
Waiting for us was Tamta Goguadze, a spokeswoman for Georgia’s State Security Service. She immediately warned against photographing Russian soldiers on the other side — or venturing too close to the enormous bilingual sign declaring this to be a “border” in the first place.
Before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, South Ossetia was home to 60,000 people, while the larger region of Abkhazia, situated to the west, hosted 550,000 inhabitants. Together, the two regions comprised 20 percent of Georgia’s total land area.
“After the war, the overwhelming majority of Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia and became IDPs,” said Archil Gegeshidze, Georgia’s envoy in Washington. “Some went to Russia or Ukraine and became refugees in those countries. The current population of South Ossetia is 15,000 to 30,000, but unfortunately, the only job-creating industry there is the Russian military base, and many of them are leaving.”
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili recently warned that South Ossetia now plans a referendum on joining Russia — similar to Crimea’s controversial 2014 referendum opposed by Ukraine. He said this was “absolutely against international law” and would further inflame regional tensions because “the situation in the occupied region remains very fragile, and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating every day.”
David Vanishvili certainly doesn’t need a politician to tell him that.
A lifelong resident of Tskhinvali, the 83-year-old farmer is today virtually a prisoner in his own village, which has been isolated by the barbed-wire barrier.
“I cannot even buy bread,” he shouted from the other side. As our guide translated the old man’s words into English, a golden retriever rolled in the grass nearby. “I’m hungry. I don’t have Russian money from over there, or Georgian money from here. Kind people who know my situation pass me food through the fence.”
Not far away, a young man named Gocha Makishvili explained matter-of-factly how he was collecting firewood in the fall of 2012 when a Russian soldier with an attack dog detained him in his own backyard.
“They told me I had crossed the border illegally,” said Makishvili, who looks far older than the 31 years listed on his government-issued ID. The Russians forced him into a car and took him to an FSB prison in Ghduleti, less than one kilometer away. They kept him there for three days, roughed him up and freed him only after his family paid 2,000 rubles (about $30).
“Unfortunately, we cannot do anything,” said Goguadze, the state security spokeswoman. Pointing to a map of the region, she explained that in 2013 and 2014, Russian troops detained 142 Georgians in their own country. In 2015, that number had risen to 163, and so far this year, 71 Georgians have been detained.
As first seen during the 2008 war, and later expanded in the 2014 Ukraine Crisis, Russia’s strategy of “grab, stab and hold” has yet to be undone in Georgia. After seizing territory through force of arms, Russia aims to create a fait accompli at the negotiating table. Once the high-intensity fighting ends, it can then acquire more land by gradually extending and redefining the borders of its control. Neighboring states like Georgia or Ukraine can risk new fighting if they wish to resist this “border creep,” or they can accept the revised status quo. What does not change, is the nature of the land grab itself.
Aside from Russia, only three states recognize the de facto borders, however fluid, of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island microstate of Nauru (itself only eight square miles). Meanwhile, Moscow continues to barrage Georgia with propaganda. The fighting may have stopped, but the information war continues.
“Will it happen again? Of course,” declared Gegeshidze. “Why did Russia go to war with Georgia? To force us to change our foreign policy orientation. This was about preventing Georgia from realizing its free choice of joining NATO and eventually the European Union, and deepening our partnership with the United States.”
Georgia has been trying to join the 28-member alliance since 1994. The 2008 invasion put those considerations on hold. While Georgia’s NATO membership was not under serious consideration at the recent NATO Summit in Warsaw, the country did receive the “maximum possible” it could hope for in the Summit’s communiqué, said Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli. This included an official readiness to ramp up dialogue and cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine on Black Sea regional security.
Meanwhile, Georgia is hunting for foreign investment to shore up its troubled economy. Even though the country’s GDP grew 3.5 percent last year, the drop in oil prices drained Russia’s once-booming economy. That hurts Georgia’s economic prospects.
“Right now it’s really an important time here,” said Sarah Williamson, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. “The government is very pro-democracy and very pro-business. They want to get this right. They don’t want to do things quickly that don’t end up right.”
Williamson’s AmCham has 200 members, nearly half of them U.S. companies including Bechtel, which is helping BP extend a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. (Last year, local press reported that Russia’s creeping occupation into Georgian territory has resulted in part of BP’s 833-kilometer pipeline now under Russian control in the villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani.)
But an even bigger project involves local investors and New Jersey-based Conti International LLC, which plans a $2.5 billion container terminal at Anaklia, on the Black Sea. The proposed terminal will be able to accommodate ships of up to 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).
Construction should start in the second quarter of 2017, with operations set to begin in 2020, said Levan Akhviediani, CEO of Anaklia Development Consortium. Currently, the busiest Black Sea port is Russia’s Novorossiysk, which last year processed 70 million tons of cargo, followed by Romania’s Constanza, with 40 million.
Ketevan Bochorishvili, Georgia’s vice-minister of economy and sustainable development, said that as grave as the problem is, Russia’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgian territory has not been a serious impediment to foreign investment.