The barbed-wire fence is advancing farther and farther into Georgian land, dividing families, destroying livelihoods, and casting a worrying sense of uncertainty over the entire region.
The barbed-wire fence at the village of Gogeti, Georgia
"Three days ago, they moved the fence 30 yards closer to my home," says Georgian farmer Georgi Chatlitschvi. "The Russian border guards told me my orchards were no longer mine—they were part of South Ossetia, not Georgia. Those apples were my livelihood. Now they sit behind the fence, on land they tell me is part of a different country."
Georgi continues, his face washed out with exhaustion: "We are scared. I haven’t slept for days. Maybe tomorrow I will lose my house. This is our land—we’ve lived here all our lives—and it's being stolen from us."
I'm told that, during the summertime, the hills, valleys, and farmlands around the Georgian village of Gogeti are lush and beautiful. Today, a bone-shearing December wind blasts along the Tskhinvali Valley. The muddy, half-thawed expanse in front of us looks like a wasteland.
In the near distance, the green, motion-sensitive fence erected by the Russians runs the entire length of the horizon. Behind it, on the South Ossetian side, sits the towering hulk of a Russian military base. Farther on, the Caucasus Mountains run northward, all the way into Russia.
Local residents who live in close proximity to the fence, which moves closer to their home every day
Since Russia began building the fence in 2011—establishing a de facto border between Georgia and the self-declared independent state of South Ossetia—injustices like the one Georgi describes have been a daily occurrence.
Dubbed a "rural Berlin wall" for all the villages it's split in two, the fence is advancing farther and farther into Georgian land, dividing families, destroying livelihoods, and casting a worrying sense of uncertainty over the entire region.
"I am a cattle herder—I don't know [about] these politics," says 54-year-old Elguja, as he stands among his cows. "Our village relies on these animals for income. If they wander across the border while grazing, I cannot get them back. I will be arrested for trespassing, and they will be gone forever."
In 2008, South Ossetia was the focus of a brief but brutal war between Russia and Georgia. When the Georgian government refused to accept South Ossetia’s independence, they tried to recapture it, invoking a massive Russian air and ground assault that lasted only five days but claimed more than 400 casualties, with 133,000 civilians displaced.
Since then, Russia has maintained a vast military presence in the region and continued to back South Ossetia and the neighboring breakaway state of Abkhazia, both economically and militarily.
A Georgian local being interviewed by EUMM
I’m out on patrol with the EUMM, a civilian monitoring mission established by the EU in 2008 to observe developments in the region. Their daily patrols record the ongoing construction of the fence (which now totals more than 20 miles in length) and its daily effects on villagers like Georgi and Elguja. They also help to facilitate the release of Georgian nationals who are constantly detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).
As we lumber through the backcountry in a convoy of armored Land Cruisers, EUMM field-office chief Hans Schneider explains the other problems the fence creates for locals.
"In unfenced areas, people just don’t know where the administrative borderline starts. And in most fenced areas, it’s actually around 15 yards in front of the [barbed] wire. Just walking up to the fence means you’ve already crossed over and will be arrested. It’s a trick to keep people from tampering with it. We have to use a GPS to find the administrative line’s actual location."
Russia claims that this border is based on a Soviet administrative map of the territory from 1984, when Georgia was still under Soviet occupation. In reality, the '84 map, the current administrative borderline, and the fence’s actual route bear little resemblance.
"There’s nothing in the way of trends or patterns. Moscow seems to interpret the geography without any logic," explains EUMM spokesperson Ann Vassen. "It’s an extremely volatile situation. Freedom of movement is a huge issue, and detention cases are around five to six per week. It’s a crisis."
The road out of Dvani Village. The side of the road is filled with the remnants of people's abandoned houses.
Now, after Russian forces began dismantling them, the de facto border only has two checkpoints, effectively sealing South Ossetia from entry. Many villagers who've found themselves fenced in on the South Ossetian side are forced to cross "illegally" to access schools, jobs, health care, and relatives in Georgia. The EUMM estimates that there are between 500 to 1,000 of these crossings every week, one of the most widely used points being the Liakhvi River. "People drive cars and trucks through it. They get stuck. Children have to swim it every day just to get to class," continues Hans as we pull into the village of Dvani.
As we dismount, Hans checks his GPS, and I’m told to stop 20 yards from the crude wooden cross and bright green sign displaying the entrance to South Ossetia. Construction resumed in Dvani on September 22, 2013, the fence moving 500 yards into the village and appropriating 25 acres of agricultural land.
Dvani received a brief flurry of media attention in the run up to the Georgian elections. Potential candidates rushed to the fence and gave panicked press conferences, attempting to nurture pre-election support from the Georgian public. But since Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was elected, on November 20 of last year, the fencing has received little further acknowledgement. Both NATO and the US State Department issued a call for Russia to dismantle the fence, but Putin's forces have continued building at will.
An EUMM patrol member surveilling Tskhinvali for activity
On the last section of the patrol, we come to the Georgian military stronghold overlooking the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. The whole city resembles some deserted, post-apocalyptic movie set. The buildings are skeletal, pockmarked with shells, or completely torn in half. There’s no movement, and the green fence and surveillance cameras along its southern edge seem an odd show of technology for such a desolate place. Looking at Tskhinvali, the idea of it as the seat of autonomous regional power in South Ossetia seams completely unfathomable. More so considering that it contains almost zero natural resources, and little worth such heavy Russian investment.
"It’s not really about South Ossetia," says Irakli Porchkhidze, vice president of the Georgian Institute for Strategic Studies and deputy minister for re-integration. "Russia’s not interested in having them or Abkhazia becoming independent states. If that happens, Russia’s out of ammo when it comes to leverage on Georgia. By funding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia is able to maintain a substantial military presence there. It’s a projection of power.
"It creates the perception that Moscow is omnipotent and can always influence the situation on the ground. By building the fence, they are testing not just their opponent’s reaction but the international community’s too. Russia is a vast country, and by doing this to Georgia it is saying, 'You are weak, you are vulnerable; I can destabilize you any time I choose.'"
Children from a Georgian village after anti-fence protesters handed them warm coats and a football
"But why such overt interest in destabilizing Georgia?" I ask Irakli.
"Georgia’s a success story," he says. "And Georgia's seeking entry into NATO shows Russia that an alternative, Western mode of state development can potentially succeed in an ex-Soviet territory that Russia considers to be theirs by privilege. If Georgia gains sway politically and economically, following a different path to Moscow, Russia fears it could have a domino effect in the neighborhood."
"Weakening Russia’s influence in the region?"
"Exactly. And Georgia’s also a pivotal state when it comes to the energy-rich Caspian Basin," he continues. "Two of the only transit routes to Europe for Caspian oil and natural gas are through Georgia, or Russia. Georgia’s seeking to massively increase its role here, and if it’s free from Russian influence, that means Europe’s likely to be less dependent on Russian energy."
The next day, I head back up to the fence with a group of protesters from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, led by local architect, Gogiko Sakvarelidze. As we trample back across the mud near Gogeti, I ask him how people in Tbilisi see the situation.
"They see, but they don’t want to see," he says. "Even the new president doesn’t want to acknowledge it. This is an occupation, but to admit that there’s a problem would force him into a resolution. With the 2008 war, plus what’s happening in Ukraine, everybody’s nervous about Georgia’s stability."
Georgian protesters at the fence
Some officers of the Georgian army make us stop a good way off from the fence. In the near distance, a gaggle of Russian soldiers stand in line as protesters—draped in Georgian flags—wave banners and spray-paint SOS across a giant length of white fabric. Afterwards, I join Gogiko in his Jeep as he distributes warm clothes, toys, and handfuls of chocolate to the villagers.
"These people feel abandoned. We must show them we are listening; that we care," he says, handing a football to a small, rosy-cheeked boy. Nearby, a woman and her daughter are drawing water from a well outside their sprawling shack house. It’s cold, and she wears the same exhausted expression as the other villagers when I ask her what’s been happening.
"It’s the holiday soon, and I cannot visit my family on the other side. It’s too dangerous. I will be arrested. We can control nothing. It's the same everywhere, and every day they make it harder for us. Look—the fence is over there," she says, pointing toward it. "It's not far. It's moving always forward, and we are all scared for tomorrow."
Follow James on Twitter: @mrrippingale.