The Phantom Borders With Russia That NATO Won’t Defend
The nation of Georgia has a long record of working with NATO, but not as a member. The Daily Beast traveled to the border of a Russian-backed ‘republic’ that stands in the way.
ODZISI, Georgia—The border between the nation of Georgia and the Russian-backed breakaway Republic of South Ossetia is one of the many frontiers defended by the government of Vladimir Putin as he carves off bits of old Soviet republics in a long-term strategy to restore the glory of the Russian Empire. Here in Georgia there are some places where the line of demarcation is a fence, others where there are checkpoints, and long stretches where locals aren’t sure where the dividing line really is until they’ve been arrested by the the Russian Security Forces, known as the FSB.
The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) observes the situation and tries to keep the peace here in a conflict zone that dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when South Ossetia and nearby Abkhazia seceded from Georgian territory. Then, a decade ago there was a week-long war between Georgia, Russia, and the Russian-backed republics that brought a new level of suffering to tens of thousands of people here, mostly farmers and shepherds, from which they never have fully recovered.
As an EUMM patrol moved closer to the boundary line here in the little village of Odzisi, many of the streets looked abandoned. The convoy passed by a couple of Georgian policemen at a small station on the side of the highway, and soon the mission’s caravan of vehicles stopped before the checkpoint decorated with the red and yellow flag of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia.
The guards were from the Russian FSB. As soon as they saw the EUMM monitors approaching, several uniformed Russian officials gathered at the checkpoint. Each side studied the other through binoculars and cameras with long zoom lenses in a standoff that seemed vaguely surreal.
Earlier this year a former Georgian soldier, one who had served in the proud Georgian contingents that joined the coalition in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, was detained in South Ossetia and died in custody under unclear circumstances.
Russian-backed separatist authorities claimed that Archil Tatunashvili had plotted a terrorist attack, that nobody had killed him, that he died of heart failure. But few in Georgia believed that story. They held rallies, blocked roads, and demanded to be shown Tatunashvili’s body.
A few years ago EUMM established a hotline for communicating with the FSB and pro-Russian officials of so-called South Ossetia. “The hotline managed by EUMM has already been used 66 times in relation to the case of late Mr. Tatunashvili,” EMUU spokesman Iuliu Draghici told The Daily Beast last week. “The mission deals with individual cases that stir emotional reactions. Archil Taunashvili’s tragic death was obviously such a case, it received extensive political reaction.”
Many in Georgia were outraged when the FSB finally sent Tatunashvili’s body home. Tamar Avaliani, a lawyer representing the victim’s family, told reporters that the body arrived in Georgia without its internal organs.
“I knew Tatunashvili well, he was a strong tough young man who had served in Iraq for several years,” Robinzon Tskhonilidze, from the victim’s home village, told The Daily Beast. “Most probably Russian or Ossetian interrogators told him to kneel down or drink to South Ossetia independence,” Tskhonilidze speculated. “He refused to do that, so they killed him.”
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are not the only ones who have no hope they’ll ever move back to their land on the other side of the Boundary Line. Many risk being detained for walking on forbidden territory where there is no fence, and Tatunashvili’s fate has added another layer of fear.
In Moscow officials like to brag that South Ossetia will become an official part of Russia sooner than Georgia would join NATO, and that might be true.
Judging by backstage comments at last week’s NATO-Georgia Public Diplomacy Forum in Tbilisi, for as long as Russia keeps its military bases in Abkhazia and Ossetia, Georgia will have no prayer of becoming a NATO member.
Last July, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said about Georgia: “We are with you. We stand with you. We are proud of our friendship and strategic partnership with the nation and the people of Georgia.” And Georgians appreciate international support. At least 65 percent of Georgians approve the idea of NATO membership. At present, Georgia is the largest per capita non-NATO troop contributor to Afghanistan. But despite such gestures, its eventual membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, which would obligate all member states to come to its defense if attacked, is still far certain.
Meanwhile, the poorest of the poor are paying the price in the ongoing Russia-Georgia conflict.
Since open warfare ended in August 2008, the boundary with South Ossetia has stretched for more than 300 kilometers. Russian troops have built at least 15 military bases along it and conduct military exercises both for the FSB and for troops from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Near the Russian military base in Akhalgori, for instance, the FSB-controlled fence separates houses, family members, and friends, leaving thousands of people displaced.
Before the 2008 war Nikolos and Marina Metreveli, two aging pensioners with faces burned by years in the sun, lived in Akhalgori. But because they were ethnic Georgians they felt they had to escape from the village occupied by Russian troops. (The majority of the small population of South Ossetia is of Persian extraction.) On Friday the couple together with their 7-year-old granddaughter Ani were planting onions on a tiny patch of land outside their IDP camp. “We are afraid to get kidnapped by Russian military, so we stay away from their bases,” Nikolos Metreveli told The Daily Beast. “My nephew lives on the other side of the fence. He is already 45 years old. I have not seen him for 10 years.”
Every week detained Georgians appeared before a court in the Russia-backed separatist region, accused of supposedly “illegal crossings.” The punishment is usually a fine of more than $30—a huge amount for people with income of about $100 a month.
Georgia, a country with about 4 million people, has not done anything to limit movement across the “administrative boundary line” with so-called South Ossetia, refusing to accept Russia’s quasi-annexation of its territories and the existence of a border. Georgia’s is open to Russian citizens: More than a million tourists traveled from Russia to Georgia last year. “See, we have no troops, no artillery, no tanks like the Russians do on their side, because South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgia, we have no border with them,” local entrepreneur Livan Girkilidze told The Daily Beast.
Local people who remember the war and remember losing everything pray that the truce would last and no new war erupts any time soon.
On Friday afternoon, five men with gloomy, weary faces were sharing a drink of dark beer from a plastic bottle at a dusty bus stop in the center of a Georgian village of Tserovani, just a few kilometers away from the administrative boundary line. The youngest of them, David, said the late Tatunashvili was his cousin. “The Americans will not help us, nobody will,” he said. “We live in fear because we realize that any of us can be detained and killed.” David spit on the ground and sipped the beer from the big plastic bottle.