Matthew Luxmoore

While leaning West, Georgia government tries to appease Russia

As Tbilisi pursues closer ties with Europe, recent expansionary efforts by Moscow in South Ossetia have provoked ire

This is part 4 in an occasional series about tensions between Moscow and the West in key flashpoints along Russia's borders and in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

GUGUTIANTKARI, Georgia — It was just after 9 a.m. when Tina Bedinashvili’s house was set ablaze. Atop a blackened mantel in what was once her living room, a charred clock is stopped on that time.

“For my family, the war started on Aug. 13,” says Bedinashvili, 65, glass crunching beneath her feet as she moves gingerly among the rooms of her wrecked and abandoned home.

On that summer day in 2008, Bedinashvili, a mathematics teacher at a local school, prepared to leave Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, with her family and return home. In a televised address the previous evening, she had watched Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announce an end to what Moscow called its peace enforcement operation in Georgia. A brutal five-day war for control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions in Georgia’s north and northwest, had officially ended.

Georgia lost control of the two breakaway regions in the 2008 war.

But in Gugutiantkari, a small farming settlement abutting South Ossetia, looters swept across the village, stripping the homes of those who had fled the Russian military advance. Seven years on, Gugutiantkari is split in half by a razor wire fence, leaving neighbors on different sides of a disputed state border.

Today, along with three other families, the Bedinashvilis occupy an abandoned school a stone’s throw from the ruins of their former home. The building is one of hundreds turned into makeshift shelters for the 30,000 Georgians left homeless in 2008, a fraction of an estimated 260,000 displaced by over two decades of intermittent violence that has plagued Georgia. International NGOs help with the reconstruction of homes and maintain dozens of refugee camps, which the highway to Tbilisi. Bedinashvili is thankful for the help, she says. Like thousands of others, she is awaiting her chance to return home.

Recent events have all but dashed her hopes. Fallout from the conflict in Ukraine has placed the process of reconciliation in Georgia under major strain and brought the government under growing pressure to oppose Moscow’s tightening grip over the breakaway regions. Russia’s strategic partnership agreement with South Ossetia, signed on the first anniversary of Crimea’s annexation on March 18, ceded control of the region’s military, economy and border to Moscow. Tbilisi condemned the deal, a version of which was also concluded with Abkhazia four months earlier, as nothing short of de facto annexation.

Russian activity along the frontier is now provoking fresh accusations of expansion. On July 10, troops operating in South Ossetia installed signs marking the breakaway state’s border about 1,000 feet beyond the agreed line of control. One such marker near the village of Tsitelubani is now reportedly more than a half-mile into Georgian-controlled territory and just north of the highway that connects Tbilisi with the Black Sea and Azerbaijan. A mile-long section of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa oil pipeline has been left under Moscow’s control.

The news provoked reactions far beyond Georgia. The EU, which has based a monitoring mission in the border area since 2008, warned in a statement that the new signposts “led to tension in the area, with potentially negative effects on the local population, their livelihood and freedom of movement.” The office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a similarly worded statement.

Responding to the allegations, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Tbilisi “knows perfectly well that there is and has been no shifting of the border.” The Georgian side “must decide whether it intends to follow the positive logic of improving relations with Russia or continue resorting to provocative fabrications.” It added that all issues related to the administrative boundary should be discussed directly with officials of South Ossetia, which remains a largely unrecognized state.

Georgians in the village of Khurvaleti tear down a border sign erected by Russian and Ossetian troops along Georgia’s de facto border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia, July 14, 2015.
Vano Shlamov / AFP / Getty Images

In the meantime, angered by a perceived lack of action from their government, some Georgians have taken matters into their own hands. On July 14, a group of journalists took down and trampled one of the South Ossetian border signs near the village of Khurvaleti, replacing it the following day with a Georgian flag. On July 18, several thousand people gathered outside the government administration building in downtown Tbilisi for a rally organized by opposition media and NGOs under the slogan “Stop Russia.” In a series of speeches, opposition activists and academics denounced government weakness in the face of what they termed the Russian occupation, accusing President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s administration of abetting the rise of pro-Moscow forces in Georgia.

In comments to news agency Civil Georgia, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed the protest as a gathering of opposition-minded “idlers.” Yet the demonstrators echo a refrain that has become common of late. EU flags hang outside government buildings across Georgia, indicating its proclaimed pro-Western aims, but many observers feel commitment to that course is slipping because of disillusionment with European and U.S. promises and an intensifying soft power offensive from Moscow. The launch in May of Kremlin-owned news agency Sputnik’s Georgian-language service, expanding the outlet’s already significant international reach, coincides with statistics showing a doubling in public support in Georgia for membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, at the expense of the EU.

The opposition UNM party, a grouping founded by Georgia’s staunchly pro-Western ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, slams the incumbent Georgian Dream coalition for overseeing a steady erosion of the pro-Western course that UNM advanced during its time in power. According to Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP and senior figure in UNM, the administration is knowingly facilitating pro-Russian groups in the country.

“In 2012, Georgian Dream campaigned on a promise of improving relations with Russia, and a practical example is its conduct toward Ukraine. [Ukraine] is an opportunity for Georgia to elevate the issue of its own occupation, to highlight the obvious link between what are essentially two manifestations of the same problem. [The government] is doing the opposite of that,” he said.

An oft-cited example of Georgia’s commitment to NATO has been its contribution to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, which tiny Georgia has backed with more troops per capita than most nations in the military alliance. But with full territorial control one of the security bloc’s membership criteria, failure to agree on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — a process inevitably involving dialogue with Russia — is likely to continue stalling Georgia’s accession talks. Some observers doubt NATO’s commitment to bringing Georgia into the fold.

The country’s administration appears well aware of that. Tedo Japaridze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee, denied that the government has made any shift in its pro-Western orientation but was quick to stress the lack of a viable alternative to dialogue with Moscow.

“We’re realistic. We understand that we live in this region and we cannot change our geography. We’re still committed to integration with Western structures, but we don’t want to scream about it or poke our fingers into the bear’s eyes,” he said, referring to Russia.

A signpost in English and Georgian marks the line of control between South Ossetia and Georgia. Russia has placed dozens of similar markers along the disputed border, some allegedly well inside Tbilisi-controlled territory.
Matthew Luxmoore

Many experts see that approach as problematic. In the context of tensions with South Ossetia, they argue, the government’s reluctance to provoke Russia has yielded few positive results. The EU has helped communication between parties to the 2008 conflict, hosting monthly meetings with representatives from all sides. While South Ossetian participation has continued despite the recent escalation, a disagreement that led to Abkhazia’s withdrawal from the program in 2012 remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, Russia has strengthened its border fortifications. A metal fence running nearly the length of the South Ossetia–Georgia border is flanked by motion-sensor-equipped cameras, beyond which stand observation towers. On the Ossetian side, vehicles belonging to Russia’s border guard traverse past homes shorn of metal roofs and doors, a striking feature in the abandoned villages that dot both sides of the disputed border.

For families like Bedinashvili’s, that means a life in limbo and an inability to move on. Like most here, Bedinashvili is reluctant to pin blame on either side. Yet each time she returns to survey the wreckage of her home, she says, what hurts most is the loss of personal ties inflicted by what she deems a pointless war.

“We know who did this to us. Those people were our friends. We would sit on our terrace and drink wine together. Now we no longer talk,” she says.

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