Russia-Georgia: Another State-Built Fence?
To make sure that everyone takes seriously the Georgia-ends-here line it drew after the two countries’ 2008 war, Russia is doing what other countries have done to reinforce a porous border – it’s building a fence.
But this one is reportedly being built a few hundred meters within Georgian-controlled territory itself.
Like other walls before it, the fence serves a supposed security purpose – in this case, defending the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which Moscow views as an independent country, from the perilous threat of Georgian farmers and their cows.
Country folk in these parts do not let wars or separatism or Russian border guards distract them from the real job of gathering crops and firewood, and feeding the livestock, be it in breakaway South Ossetia or their own Georgian-controlled region of Shida Kartli.
But now they could be compelled to cross a border in their own backyards. One octogenarian farmer, whose house ended up falling behind the fence, told RFE/RL that his ailing wife, in need of medical assistance, had to crawl under the barbed wire to get picked up by a Georgian ambulance crew.
Moscow has offered no explanation for its fence-building activities, which have been widely interpreted in Tbilisi as the same-old, same-old – the Kremlin trying to pull a fast one.
The Russian fence, though, threatens to become a major foreign policy challenge for Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government, which has promised voters that it will mend fences with Moscow.
It now needs to react without disrupting the fragile dialogue with the Kremlin that, so far, has led to the return of Georgian wines and mineral water to the Russian market. Yet there seems to be a lack of political consensus over the best course of action.
Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said a note will be sent to Moscow; a measure that amounts to a formality. Under the given circumstances, though, she continued, Tbilisi cannot continue talking wine, water and cultural ties with the Kremlin.
But Zurab Abashidze, Ivanishvili’s point man for talks with Moscow, cautioned against tying the fence and wine themes, and said that negotiations on these topics should continue through different channels.
Responding to criticism from President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement that the government is not taking action against the fence, State Minister for Reintegration Issues Paata Zakareishvili asserted that Moscow is trying to play on Tbilisi’s emotions, and asked: “You want us to declare war on Russia for 200-300 meters?”
For their part, European Union observers, who monitor the Georgian-Russian cease-fire, warned that the fence may cause the security situation in the area to deteriorate still further since it "impedes people’s livelihoods and divides families, and communities."
Such statements never have done much to change Moscow's mind in the past. So far, though, it does not look like Tbilisi has any other hands to play.