Georgian vigilantes take on South Ossetia’s creeping border crisis
Locals are alarmed by Russia's ongoing annexation of Georgian territory, and their government’s wavering response.
Russian soldiers hold a position just 250 meters from Georgia's main east-west highway. Had they been training their binoculars on the road one day in May, they would have seen a curious sight.
A small crowd on the highway’s shoulder held signs featuring swastikas painted in the Russian tricolor. “End the 21st century occupation,” the group chanted, while some placed stickers with the same slogan on the sides of cars caught in traffic.
The group, which calls itself Strength in Unity, is demonstrating to draw attention to what is popularly known as the “borderization crisis.” In recent years, Russian troops across the de facto border with South Ossetia have gradually shifted their barbed wire deeper into Georgian territory, leading some Georgian citizens to lose their homes.
Strength in Unity believes the government is failing to address the crisis and is taking matters into its own hands. Members conduct patrols along the de facto boundary while drawing public attention to the troubles faced by people who live near the line.
“We have no political ambitions,” says the group's founder, David Katsarava, 41. “We are simply concerned citizens passionate about protecting our country from Russian aggression.”
Katsarava, a six-foot bodybuilder and local action-movie star turned political activist, says his team currently numbers 20 and has been conducting patrols seven days a week since its founding in July 2017. He says the group is entirely self-funded.
“I read some articles about the so-called ‘creeping annexation’ and I was furious. I just knew something had to be done about this situation as the government was clearly doing nothing to stop it,” Katsarava says.
“People have said our activities are just a fad or nothing more than a publicity stunt,” he adds. “But we are here every single day and people are starting to understand that we are true patriots united by a simple idea: to help our people and to take our country back.”
The so-called Republic of South Ossetia is a self-proclaimed state heavily backed by Russia, one of only a handful of countries that formally recognize it. The territory declared independence in 1990, sparking a war with the nascent Georgian state, and was again the site of a war in 2008. The conflict has left a total of 300,000 displaced.
Despite a truce in 2008, Russian-backed forces continue to encroach on Georgian territory. The borders, unrecognized by the vast majority of the world, have consequences that are very real for those who live alongside them. They shift regularly – sometimes even daily – creating chaos and uncertainty as Georgian citizens find their land and homes swallowed up behind barbed wire.
“I can’t even enter my own field to tend to my cows anymore because the field has been claimed by the occupiers,” Lali Khachirashvili, 51, a cook in an old-age shelter in Khurvaleti tells Eurasianet.
Khachirashvili says she went to check that her gate was locked one evening when she spotted a man lying behind it. At first she thought it was one of her neighbors passed out drunk, but as she approached she realized it was an Ossetian soldier. She was then dragged across the wire and taken to a nearby Russian military base. In a closed trial, she was charged with “crossing the administrative boundary” and fined 2,000 rubles ($32).
Khachirashvili’s experience is not uncommon. In 2017, Georgian officials recorded 126 detentions on the South Ossetian boundary. Occasionally these are fatal. Archil Tatunashvili died in February under mysterious circumstances in a South Ossetian jail.
In response to Tatunashvili's death, Strength in Unity blocked the main highway to Russia, chanting “Get [Russian] barbed wire out of Georgia!”
When the group started its patrols last year, Georgia’s Interior Ministry tried to stop them, calling the patrols “illegal.” But now they have the tacit support of the government.
“The government does not provide us with material support, but they do not interfere with us either – this is important for us,” Katsarava says. According to Strength in Unity, the group has cultivated warm relations with police, whom they describe as “comrades.”
On this day, as their jeep approaches a small police station, Katsarava grins. “Our bros!” he says, as he leaps out the vehicle to greet them. But Katsarava still remains skeptical of the authorities.
“It’s a Cold War out here and we’re locked in a game of chess not only with the Russians, but with our own government,” he says. “Some [members] of government are pro-Russian but we’re out here disrupting them by changing the national discussion.”
Katsarava credits his movement with elevating the boundary issue to a national discussion. In a March survey by the by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. government-backed non-profit, 61 percent of Georgians said that Russia was a major threat to the country, up 4 percent in the past year. Russian military aggression and the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were also widely seen as the top threats to the country’s future, also rising several percentage points.
Katsarava’s accusations of pro-Russian sympathies in the Georgian government are also shared by some locals in Khurvaleti.
“The government and the police are all pro-Russian – that’s why they never help us,” Lyudmila Salia, an IDP from Abkhazia and head of the old-age shelter tells Eurasianet. “The police say I’m politicizing this shelter by bringing [Strength in Unity] here, but I don’t care. At least they are trying to help us,” she says, adding that she cooperates with the group to protest the fact that police are now refusing to allow Khachirashvili, the cook, to enter her own farm after her recent detention.
Salia has invited the group to take part in the shelter’s committee meetings to discuss local issues – the group’s logo hangs proudly on the front gate next to the flag of the European Union, one of the shelter’s main sources of funding.
As the patrol approaches the site of Khachirashvili’s abduction, the police grow tense and raise their guns. “Get back from there, it’s dangerous!” they yell at Katsarava.
“This is our country!” he replies, stepping closer to the barbed wire on the dividing line, provoking more shouts from the police.
The members of Strength in Unity are well aware of the risks.
“Most of us are on a wanted list. If they [the Russians and South Ossetians] ever get the chance, they will grab us,” Katsarava says. “But it’s better to take action – to be patriotic – than to sit back and do nothing. Even if it puts us in danger.”
No stranger to controversy
It is not the first time Katsarava has put himself and others in danger. In August last year, after forest fires broke out near Borjomi, in the south of Georgia, he organized a group of volunteers to help fight the fires. The Ministry of Interior issued a statement accusing his group of making it more difficult for professional firefighters to do their job.
This year, he’s been something of a fixture on national television, where he has been debating the borderization issue. Some critics call his comments sexist and homophobic. He’s referred to in local slang as a “Gruzini” – a hyper-masculine traditionalist, a stereotype in line with his carefully crafted action-hero image.
Some dismiss Katsarava as a populist, saying he is exploiting the situation in South Ossetia for personal again. His recent business venture does little to dispel the accusation.
This year, Strength in Unity launched its own taxi service: “Deoccupation Taxis.” On the patrol, one of the vehicles joins the convoy. It features a Georgian flag wrapped in barbed wire with the slogan “It’s time to end the occupation” written on the side.
Katsarava sees the company as a potential challenger to Russia’s powerful Yandex Taxi service, which started operating in Georgia in 2017.
“We’re in the middle of franchising the brand out to investors and are aiming to launch a fleet of 200 vehicles,” he says. His target market is patriotic Georgians. The drivers too, are expected to be tireless patriots.
“We don’t just want workers, we want people who share our vision,” Katsarava says. “These will be people who are working day and night to defeat the occupiers.” He insists all profits will go toward financing the group’s daily border patrols, which cost around 60 lari per day ($25), and to help impoverished locals.
Poverty on the border is rife. One house the patrol enters has no heating and the occupant’s bed sits on a dirt floor covered in puddles from the leaking ceiling. “It’s like Somalia,” the group’s personal photographer says with a sigh.
But Strength in Unity has scored some small successes: they used social media to pressure local authorities to restore the water supply to 50 families in Khurvaleti. Since their village was cut in two by the shifting border, these families had been dependent on a communal tap to fill all their daily needs. Local authorities in Gori, the regional capital, promise to fix the water supply this month.
Despite small victories like this, however, locals are skeptical of Strength in Unity’s ambitious plans.
“It’s nice that they come here to speak with us,” says Salia, the head of the care home. “But there’s little they can realistically do. They’re just like the government: They come, they talk and then they leave – but very little is ever really done.”
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.