Putin is a snake. When I see him, I scratch his eyes out’

Through the binoculars, a playground can be seen, next to the largest of the three buildings. This is where Russian border guards and their families live and sleep. In the middle is the ‘operational building’, with surveillance equipment. On the left is the building with garages and warehouse. People don’t show up.

This is one of the nineteen bases of the Russian Border Guard along the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) between Georgia and South Ossetia. An inconspicuous settlement on a green hill, near the village of Odzisi in northern Georgia. Georgia and the European Union avoid the word ‘border’, which implies permanent separation from another country. The international consensus is that the area is occupied by Russia, annexed after the five-day war with Georgia in 2008. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria and the island nation of Nauru consider South Ossetia – nearly four thousand km2an estimated 30,000 inhabitants – as an independent country.

The pro-Russian rulers of South Ossetia aspire to reunite with North Ossetia in Russia, on the other side of the Caucasus.

EU observers follow the Russians from Georgia.

Photo Kamiel Vermeylen / Knack

Observers from the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) peer through binoculars at the Russian side. Patrol leader Janis from Latvia takes pictures with a camera with a huge telephoto lens. The observers patrol the hilly border area almost daily. They register incidents and shifts of the boundary line. Half of the ABL is passable, of which 40 percent has been sold by Russia. They know exactly where the Russian fences and border signs are. They are familiar to the scarce farmers in the area, stray dogs come to them.

Driver Sandra, who worked for the German police before she was sent to Georgia, nimbly steers the Toyota Landcruiser over rocky and steep forest trails. The harder the better, as far as she’s concerned. The patrol today includes three SUVs, with four journalists. Janis doesn’t think it’s a good idea to walk along to the closed border crossing. “The EUMM does not want to provoke. If we walk around there with the press, the Russians can take that as a provocation.”

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Georgian agents loiter at the observation points. They smoke in the shade of a tree, scare dogs away. A police station is partly shielded with car tires, but nothing gives the impression that hostilities are taking place here. Incidents concern farmers or hunters who, according to Russian taste, come too close to the ABL and are arrested. Previously this happened about eighty times a year, now only twenty times. Eight farmers are in jail. The EU mission mediates to get them released.

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Prolonged conflict, not frozen

Despite the stalemate between Georgia and Russia, Marek Szczygiel does not want to speak of a ‘frozen conflict‘, a conflict where weapons are silent but no peace has yet been signed. “We speak of aprotracted conflict‘, a protracted conflict. There are no shots fired, but there are tensions.”

Polish diplomat Szczygiel leads the EUMM from a curious headquarters in the capital Tbilisi. The guest house of an old party boss is an example of faded communist glory, including an empty swimming pool. Later this year, the mission will move to another building in the chic district of Vake. Of the 332 employees, 220 come from abroad and 112 from Georgia. Luxembourg is the only EU country that is not represented, the Netherlands is taking part in the mission with twelve people.

“Fourteen years after the occupation, the situation is different from what we expected at the beginning,” says Szczygiel, who has been the head of mission. “One of our goals is normalization. That is not a return to the situation before the war, but a life as normal as possible for the people on both sides of the ABL. We must be realistic: Russia’s recognition of independence means permanent Russian military presence.” The main goal is to prevent new violence. “Without us, the risk of violence would be significantly higher.”

In addition to South Ossetia, Russia also occupies Abkhazia, another separatist region, to the northwest. Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia does not want to join Russia, says Szczygiel. “They really want to be independent. I foresee that reconciliation with Georgia is possible there, with a Georgian constitution and autonomous status.”

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Occupied territory, autonomous status, military intervention to ‘protect’ Russian inhabitants. It is all very similar to the situation in Ukraine. That’s right, says Szczygiel, there are many similarities. “Russia follows the same script there. Preparatory work by the secret service FSB, spreading disinformation, handing out Russian passports. Striving for international recognition, calling a referendum as proof of local support. Even the myth about biolabs has been used here in Georgia.”

The EUMM sees Russia moving the border line in small steps towards Georgian territory. For example, part of the oil pipeline between Baku and Soepsa on the Black Sea is now in Russian hands. Still, Szczygiel does not expect further Russian actions in South Ossetia. “There is not much to achieve and they have already achieved their goal. The occupied territories cause destabilization, which is bad for Georgian ambitions towards NATO and the EU. Georgia as a hub between Europe and Central Asia and China is based on stability. That is under pressure from the Russian presence.”

Second Class Citizens

The annexation of South Ossetia has geopolitical consequences, but it also affects the inhabitants of the region. The freedom of movement is limited, crossing to Georgia is not possible. Education in Georgian was phased out after 2008. Ethnic Georgians feel like second-class citizens and have largely left the area.

Many of these IDPs (internally displaced persons, refugees in their own country) ended up in Tserovani, 35 kilometers north of Tbilisi. An artificial village arose here, with straight streets and prefabricated houses. Many of the houses have now been expanded with extra rooms, grapes hang over pergolas.

Russia follows the same script in Ukraine as here. Even the myth about biolabs was used here in Georgia

Marek Szczygiel Head of European Observation Mission

Khatia Meltauri (28) opened her print shop a year ago, in a small office space in the village center. Residents can have documents, photos and invitations printed here. Meltauri proudly shows her newly arrived acquisition: an Epson L1800 inkjet printer, paid for by an NGO from Estonia that supports female entrepreneurs.

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Meltauri was fourteen when the war broke out. Helicopters came over in her hometown of Achalgori, but there was no fighting. Many of her peers go to Tbilisi, but Meltauri prefers Tserovani. However, she would like more support from the Georgian government. “Why don’t we have a village hall, or a park? Now there are only dusty streets. Fortunately, we do receive support from other countries.” The displaced persons receive a government allowance of 45 lari (15 euros) per month.

Struck with a rifle butt

Neeli Kakhiashvili (79) takes a nap on a car seat in front of her house. She quickly puts on a headscarf for the visit. While grandchildren run around with water pistols, she tells about her flight from her village near the regional capital Chinvali. She hid in a basement with others for nine days, then they spent another nine days in jail. “Russian soldiers beat me with a rifle butt, it still bothers me. They were just looking for vodka and money.” When the Red Cross came along, old people were allowed to leave. Kakhiashvili managed to get away with a scarf to look older.

In Tserovani she has a roof over her head, but Kakhiashvili misses her bulldozered village. “Everything is gone, including my husband’s grave. I miss the air from there, and the taste of the fruit. We had everything, apples, pears, cherries.” She points to the peaches next to her. “I have to buy this now. I left them at home because I don’t think they’re good enough.”

This Georgian is clear about the cause of the loss of her paradise. “Putin brought me here. He is a snake. When I see Putin, I scratch his eyes.”

A sign makes it clear where the partition between Georgia and South Ossetia runs.

Photo Kamiel Vermeylen / Knack

Correction (August 3, 2022): Patrol leader Janis is from Latvia, not Estonia, as previously mentioned.



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