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Ten Years On: Georgia’s Frozen Conflict

This summer will mark the ten-year anniversary of the Russo-Georgian war. The 2008 war turned into a frozen conflict, since then eclipsed by the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Yet, Georgia and its breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are still experiencing the consequences of the war; ten years later.

Following years of built-up tensions between Georgia and Russia, the break-out of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war attracted the attention of the international scene. In the months leading up to the conflict, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two autonomous regions of Georgia, had been the objects of increasing contentions between Georgia and Russia. During this time, Moscow sent several hundred troops to these Russian-backed separatist regions, leading military exercises under the guise of neutral peacekeeping operations, stirring concerns over a potential attack on Georgia. Although a 2009 EU report eventually pointed out the responsibility of Georgia in triggering the open conflict with its attack on the main city of South Ossetia, it was Russia’s invasion of Georgia which provoked international backlash at the time. As Russian troops penetrated into Georgian territory, thus began the first case of Russian invasion of a sovereign nation since the end of the Cold War.

Tserovani, the village of refugees from 2008 Russo-Georgian war. (Photo: Terek/Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the region is still affected by the 2008 five-day war which claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. The conflict resulted in over 120 000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), who were either forcibly displaced during the conflict or displaced due to the destruction of their home, coming mainly from the breakaway regions. The Georgian government was initially quick to respond to the needs of IDPs, providing families with housing in one of the many IDP settlements built by the government. However, what many believed to be a temporary solution turned into a long-term situation. This posed an issue, as the haste in which the settlements were built meant that poor quality materials were used for the construction of the small cottages intended for IDPs, resulting in widespread need for repair, and often dire living conditions. Moreover, the limited involvement of IDPs in decision-making processes regarding their resettlement continues to contribute to the lack of information on alternative housing and in turn, affects their reintegration into society. IDPs also deal with higher rates of unemployment. Considering that the national rate of unemployment is already rather high with about 12% of the population being unemployed, IDPs are especially vulnerable to this issue due to the lack of employment opportunities and training programs targeted for their specific needs.

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In the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian military forces are still heavily present despite the Medvedev-Sarkozy ceasefire agreement. The population is suffering from “isolation policies” which take several forms. Currently, very few members of the international community recognize these regions as independent, so while the citizens of the breakaway territories may receive Russian passports, most countries consider these illegal, therefore restricting most travels to Russia. The destruction of infrastructures caused by the war, the lack of investment and the complex geopolitical status of the regions have pushed Abkhazia and South Ossetia into an economic limbo. The education and healthcare systems, as well as law enforcement, also continue to be affected by the isolation of the regions. Despite the development aid coming from Russia, professionals aren’t receiving adequate training to keep up with the new developments of their professions or the necessary funds to rebuild the different infrastructures destroyed during the conflict.

In addition, a joint report from the Worldwide Movement for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Human Rights Center, Georgia (HRIDC) mentions concerns over the recent closing down of several NGOs in South Ossetia, who often cooperated with their Georgian counterparts. This further undermines the possibilities of supporting local populations, especially considering the fact that international organizations have very limited access to the separatist territories. This represents an obstacle to the implementation of long-term development and cooperation programs. Attempting to strengthen ties with the separatist populations raises an additional issue. How can international organizations and NGOs support these populations without crystallizing the situation and comforting the conflict regions in their separatist mindset rather than encourage rapprochement with Georgia? And how can they work more closely with Abkhazia and South Ossetia while avoiding the slippery slope of the recognition of the self-proclaimed independence of these regions?

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Recently, Western media has paid very little attention to the situation in Georgia, even though the region remains unstable. This is best exemplified by the ever-changing borderline between Georgia and the conflict regions as Russian armed forces persist in frequently modifying these borders by moving the demarcation lines. Georgian citizens living along the border may go to sleep in the Republic of Georgia, only to wake up and find out that their house now belongs on South Ossetian territory. The illegal process of so-called “borderization” has allowed Russia to slowly but steadily seize Georgian territory. Villages and families are separated by the process since Russian forces establish new demarcation lines in the middle of villages, or through people’s properties. Sometimes the creeping occupation reaches further inland and threatens strategic elements of the country. Thus, a new de facto borderline now runs just a few hundred meters from the east-west highway of Georgia and passes over a small part of the oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Turkey. And if some parts of the border are clearly materialized with barbed-wire fences, others may simply be marked by an ambiguous dirt path. This explains the great number of Georgian citizens who have been illegally arrested and detained, sometimes even kidnapped, by Russian border control.

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Unfortunately, there is little hope of resolution in the foreseeable future. Both sides are firmly holding to their positions, leaving their citizens to pay the price. The separatist regions have become more and more integrated with the Russian Federation, both militarily and administratively, resulting in concerns over the potential annexation of the regions. The Russian armed forces, which have been posted as border guards all along the demarcation lines between the separatist regions and Georgia continue to move the borders, slowly infringing on Georgian territory, one border sign at a time.

Alexandra Toussaint

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