The Georgian soldiers stand with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, guarding a line that today marks the de facto border between their country and the Russian-protected breakaway republic to the north. Facing them is an empty field broken only by a few shrubs and a large green-and-white sign that marks the beginning of a “country” that few outside Moscow recognize: the Republic of South Ossetia.
The ground is literally shifting beneath the feet of the Georgian troops these days. Barely visible in the ground behind them is a row of metal discs – jutting perhaps 30 metres south, and further into Georgia, from the current line of control – that lays out where Russian and South Ossetian forces will extend a green metal border fence they have been building to unilaterally draw a zig-zagging new border between Georgia and its lost province.
The Kremlin appears to be testing, again, how far tiny Georgia will go to defend its territory.
South Ossetia briefly made international headlines five years ago, when skirmishes between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militiamen grew into a larger combat that saw Russian forces intervene to support their vassal. The Georgian army was humiliated in a nine-day war, which was ended by a European Union-brokered truce that was supposed to see Russian troops – who had pushed deep into Georgian territory – return to preconflict positions.
While Russian troops withdrew from many parts of Georgia they had overrun, they haven’t returned to the old line of control. Instead, they’ve been spotted helping their South Ossetian allies build the new border fence, which will effectively annex some of the territory seized during the war. (Large swaths of the land being fenced in belonged to the Soviet-era South Ossetian autonomous region, but were under Georgian control until 2008.)
Building of the green border fence quietly started in 2009, but the pace of construction – and the grabbing of homes and land in formerly Georgian-controlled territory – has accelerated sharply in 2013, and particularly in recent weeks. Fearful of a new conflict, the Georgians say all they can do is back up and complain.
“We’re doing not anything about it, because it would escalate the situation,” said Giorgiy Jigauri, an analyst with the Georgian Interior Ministry who took journalists on a tour of the shifting front line at Ditsi last week. He compared the new fence being built around South Ossetia to a modern Berlin Wall, cutting between two peoples who have always lived side by side, if not always harmoniously.
“Some of the people on the different sides of this fence are relatives. A son was arrested recently for [crossing the border and] taking medicine to his mother. The Russians don’t care about anything,” Mr. Jigauri said.
A team of 200 EU officials tasked with monitoring the 2008 ceasefire have been watching and recording the fence-building. But beyond briefing foreign ambassadors in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi about what they see, the EU monitors are powerless.
South Ossetia, a tiny hoof-shaped enclave that’s home to just 55,000 people, has had de facto independence since 1990, when it broke away from Georgia amid the chaos following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Georgia has never recognized that declaration of independence, and the 2008 war followed a buildup by Georgian and Russian forces on their respective sides of the line of control.
After the war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia, as independent states. Many saw that as an attempt by Russia to maintain its ability to meddle in Georgia, which sits astride a key pipeline for shipping oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region to the West.
Until the war, Georgians and Ossetians lived as neighbours in the grape-growing village of Dvali, walking back and forth across an undemarcated border. But the road through the village, which sits a short drive southwest of Ditsi, now dead-ends in a line of cement blocks topped with barbed wire.
Even that doesn’t mark the extent of Russian plans in the area. A sign, provocatively planted on the Georgian side of the cement and wire, claims that South Ossetia’s border is in fact another 50 metres deeper into Dvali. As in Ditsi, Georgian troops say they have no plans to resist when the Russians and South Ossetians come to enforce that claim, a move residents believe is imminent.
Most of the Georgian homes that are about to be pulled into an expanding South Ossetia were destroyed in the 2008 war and never rebuilt. That doesn’t mean their owners are happy to see their lands seized by a republic they have no interest in joining.
“We were friends, good friends,” 72-year-old Givi Makashvili said of the South Ossetians whose stone homes he can see from the ruins of his family farm, which has remained a jumble of smashed concrete while the Makashvili family waited in refugee housing for compensation that never came. “Now they tell me the border will move 50 metres. This is my house. Where am I supposed to go?”
Georgia’s allies in the United States and the European Union are unwilling to intervene. They need the Kremlin’s co-operation too much right now – on more pressing issues like Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program – to pick a fight with Moscow over a tiny patch of land in the North Caucasus.
Trade relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have improved since the election in Georgia last year of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili – a billionaire who made much of his fortune doing business in Russia – but the Kremlin seems uninterested in calming the situation at the South Ossetian border.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is due to step down next month after 10 tumultuous years in power, tried to pull his country out of Moscow’s orbit by seeking membership in the EU and NATO. Despite impressive economic progress under Mr. Saakashvili, both bids failed, and the leading candidate to replace Mr. Saakashvili – former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze – says she will freeze Georgia’s effort to join NATO in hopes of rebuilding relations with Moscow.
It’s a recognition that Georgia, after years of thumbing its nose at Russia, now finds itself with few friends willing to support it against a Kremlin with rising diplomatic clout. “I see the South Caucasus as a decreasing priority for the EU and the U.S., because of the focus on other problems,” said Lawrence Sheets, a Tbilisi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. “I can again see Russia using hard power to tighten its grip here.”