Early last month, Russian soldiers transplanted a border sign thousands of feet farther into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. In comparison to other recent headlines, this one might appear innocuous. This is what President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government would have the members of NATO and the international community believe. In reality, this transgression is just the latest action taken by the Russian government in their program of “borderization,” an attempt to reclaim land formerly under the dominion of the USSR. A closer examination of this issue reveals Mr. Putin’s desire to maintain Russia’s regional hegemony by preventing Georgia, Ukraine, and any other state that is interested in joining NATO from doing so. While one can appreciate Russia’s geopolitical position, this issue illustrates the tragedy of accepting “strategic interests” at the expense of consideration for the lives and livelihoods of common people.
The regions of Abkhazia, located in the Northwest, and South Ossetia, located in the North, are both sources of conflict within Georgia and, as a consequence of their borders with Russia, sources of conflict internationally. Both regions are home to ethnic minorities, the Abkhaz and the Ossetians.
In late 1917, the Abkhaz People’s Council called for the “self determination of the Abkhazian People”. In May, 1918, the Georgian state was established. Just a month later, Georgia invaded Abkhazia and subjected it to military rule for the next three years until both parties were conquered by Soviet forces. Under Soviet rule, Abkhazia was an ASSR, or an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. While autonomous, there was still a high degree of Soviet control over Abkhazian affairs. Additionally, Stalin and other Soviet administrators encouraged a process of “Georgianisation,” whereby millions of Georgians moved into Abkhazia in order to reduce the population of ethnic Abkhazians. By 1989, less than 18% of people in Abkhazia were ethnically Abkhaz.
Prior to the establishment and expansion of the USSR, Ossetia was a complete region, albeit under the dominion of Imperial Russia. But in 1922, around the same time as the annexation of Georgia and Abkhazia, Russia decided to divide Ossetia in half. North Ossetia would remain a part of Russia and South Ossetia would be a part of Georgia. Like Abkhazia, it would be designated as an autonomous province, but unlike Abkhazia, it would be granted a greater degree of de facto autonomy. Ossetian was both the official language and the language of instruction in school.
While Soviet and Pre-Soviet history of these regions is important, it isn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that tensions between Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Georgia, and Russia begin to boil over. In 1989, South Ossetia demanded more autonomy, resulting in violence between South Ossetians and Georgians. By 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia declared itself to be a free and independent state.
Still, Russia deployed peacekeepers to the region, and peace was restored in the summer of 1992. It was a short lived peace, because, in 1993, Abkhazian separatists drove Georgian forces out of the region. As a result of its successful secession, it declared full independence in 1999 . However, this declaration went largely unrecognized by the international community.
In addition to separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian nationalists also played a role in the escalation of tensions between parties. For example, in 1990, twenty to thirty thousand Georgian nationalists marched on the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, in order to “protect the Georgian population.” Six people died and one hundred and forty were injured. This led to a boycott of Georgia’s political processes by South Ossetians, as well as a declaration of regional independence that motivated Georgians to abolish South Ossetian autonomy. Over the next two decades, intermittent violence continued with tensions reaching a fever pitch in 2008.
In August of 2008, 15,000 Georgian troops invaded South Ossetia in response to South Ossetian bombardment of Georgian villages. The Georgians advanced to Tskhinvali but were unable to take the capital before Russian reinforcements arrived. The Russians pushed the Georgians back to the border of South Ossetia and continued to advance even farther into Georgian territory. Though the Russian military eventually pulled out of these conquered territories as a result of peace accords brokered by France, it left a large force in South Ossetia. The Russo-Georgian war cost a thousand lives, displaced one hundred thousand people, and dealt extensive damage to infrastructure. Diplomatically, the war led to Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state, while Georgia continues to call it a Georgian territory under Russian occupation. As it stands today, only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
That brings us to today. Russia’s encroachment into the sovereign territory of Georgia proper is illegal under international law, as was its annexation of Crimea in 2014. And yet, it is doubtful that the international community will do anything substantive to punish Russia. There is little incentive politically to take actions beyond surface-level condemnations or increased sanctions. Furthermore, the case of ethnic groups demanding independence from their mother country is a special one. But to imply that because many parts of Crimea identified as ethnically Russian, Russia had the right to seize territory from a sovereign nation is dangerous. While there is a case to be made for the self-determination of people, it does not extend so far as to justify Russia’s “protection” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Concerning strategy, Russia does not want “The West” at its borders—ever since the fall of the USSR, Georgia has been increasingly pro-west. In 2008, 77% of the country supported NATO accession in a non-binding referendum. In 2011, Georgia was designated as an “aspirant” country by NATO. That is, Georgia has been deemed a country that could one day join NATO under the alliance’s enlargement program adopted after the Cold War. Any country who has the desire to do so must resolve any jurisdictional or border disputes by peaceful means. It seems highly convenient, then, that Russia has supported the separatist movements in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ukraine, and continues its program of borderization, as these strategies create obstacles to Georgia’s and Ukraine’s efforts to align themselves with the West.
But what about the people on the Russo-Georgian border? Or the Georgians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or the Ukrainians in Crimea? Every day these people must live with the reality that their lives and livelihoods are at the mercy of the whims of one of the world’s great powers; that, politically, it is too costly for members of the international community to involve themselves in conflicts and disputes thousands of miles away; and that, for whatever reason, they were born into a turbulent place, at a turbulent time.
Adrian is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.