Last week, VICE News released a video chronicling a crucial and disturbing development in central Georgia. Russian-backed forces in the semi-autonomous Georgian province of South Ossetia have been slowly pushing the border with Georgia out by up to one kilometer. This has been enforced with barbed-wire fences, signs indicating a “state border,” and strict policing. Dozens of Georgians have been arrested for attempting to cross the border, and Russian policing of the area has been strict and effective.
For native Georgians caught in the crossfire, the effects have been devastating. David Vanishvili, an 82-year-old Georgian man, woke up one morning to find a barbed wire border drawn through his property. He and his family are the only ones from their village on the Russian side of the border, and they get their food passed through the barbed-wire border. His attempts to cross the border have been foiled by Russian forces that monitor the fence with cameras, and have arrested Vanishvili multiple times for his attempts to return to his hometown.
To make matters worse, Leonid Tibilov, president of South Ossetia, has announced plans for a referendum to formally secede from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. Sound familiar? Similar to Crimea, this would have little to no support in international law; and similar to Crimea, there is little the world can do to stop it.
In August 2008, separatists in South Ossetia engaged in battle with the Georgian national forces. Until then, South Ossetia (not to be mistaken for its counterpart North Ossetia, which sits on the other side of the Caucuses in Russia) was a largely self-administered province in Georgia. After the battle, the Georgian army responded in force, sending masses of troops into South Ossetia to quell the violence and possible rebellion.
In response, Russia invaded Georgia. While the Russian government claimed they were “supporting Russian peacekeepers” and “volunteer fighters,” the full might of the Russian army was felt in the small nation. Russian airstrikes decimated the infrastructure in most of the major Georgian cities, as Russian ground forces invaded by land (through North Ossetia) and amphibiously through the Black Sea.
While the war was over in just five short days, it would take years for Georgia to fully recover. Since then, the mainly ethnically Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (the Northwest tip of Georgia) have remained semi-autonomous. Furthermore, Russia has largely maintained control of the regions that are still considered to be part of sovereign Georgian territory.
Explaining Recent Actions
There are several possible reasons for the current Russian actions. Last week, Georgian defense minister Tina Khidasheli wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for NATO to strongly consider admitting Georgia as a member state. Mr. Khidasheli cited the recent security conference held in Tbilisi, Georgian contributions to the NATO operation in Iraq, and the new NATO training facility that will be built in the nation. There is nothing like former Soviet states potentially joining NATO to get Putin scrambling into action. Better yet, there is nothing like a permanently disputed border to eliminate a country from NATO consideration.
Beyond this border dispute, pipelines play into this dynamic as well. Part of the border has been moved to include a very small piece of an American-backed oil pipeline in central Georgia. While the total newly Russian controlled area around the pipeline is less than a kilometer, the message is very clear. Georgia is a major oil and natural gas transit company for Russian competitors in the industry. During the 2008 war, Russia made sure to bomb Georgian pipelines in an assertion of dominance and strength in the industry. This move could have a similar effect of simply bullying a neighboring country into respecting the Russian monopoly on the industry.
Finally, this could simply be a petty land grab in the face of an impending Russian annexation of the territory. Putin could simply view this as an opportunity to get a few more kilometers of land before enforcing Russian sovereignty over the land. The pipeline certainly would be a major bonus – as Russia could therefore profit off all fuel pumped through it.
No Western Response
Representatives from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) visited the fence that goes along the new Georgian-South Ossetian border. They represent some of the only Western response to the “creeping occupation” that is currently occurring. Algirdas Butkeviciu, the Lithuanian Prime Minister, vocally condemned the “illegal border markings of South Ossetia.”
The major western powers, however, have been uncharacteristically silent on the issue. Perhaps they are more focused on the current flashpoints in Syria and the Middle East, or perhaps they are unwilling to acknowledge that Russia continues to get away with bullying its neighbors. It may take an actual referendum in South Ossetia to get international attention brought to this issue.
Looking to the Future
As far as plans for a possible referendum, South Ossetia and Russia might not be on the same page. According to Democracy and Freedom Watch (a Georgian organization), Moscow is not nearly as committed to a referendum as the South Ossetians are. This could be a practical move related to the likely international backlash that another referendum would draw.
More likely, however, is that these border transgressions will continue to mount in severity and frequency. Russia will continue to push out the border as long as it feels comfortable and uninhibited from doing so. Europe and the United States, for their part, will likely attempt to hide or ignore these salami tactics for as long as possible. Acknowledging them would be akin to admitting major foreign policy failures.
All Georgians can do now is hope that Russia does not decide to push too far into the nation again, and spark a war that decimated the tiny nation, as they await the next step in Putin’s master plan for the region. South Ossetia remains an area to focus on as tensions between Russia continue to rise, and it may very well become the next Crimea on the Russian agenda.