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'Rural Berlin Walls' Divide Communities After Russia-Georgia War

  • James Brooke

Two-meter-high rolls of razor wire now course through Georgia's countryside, dividing farms, families and villages.

Five years ago this week, Russia and Georgia fought a short war over two separatist regions of Georgia-Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When the cease-fires were signed on August 16, 2008, the cease-fire lines were to be temporary lines drawn on maps of Georgia.

But five years later, Russian soldiers are putting up kilometers of fencing and earthen berms, creating what some call “rural Berlin Walls.”

Mariam, an Ossetian, and her husband, David Vanishvili, a Georgian, woke up one day in this border village to find their lives cut in half.

“My Georgian friends miss me, and sometimes they come close to the fence and we talk," said Mariam, talking to VOA through the fresh rolls of razor wire. "They ask how I am and if I need something. The day before we didn’t have matches and they brought some to us.”

David said Russian soldiers patrol the border daily, walking down a border footpath with dogs.

“The fence used to not be this long, it used to be shorter, but they made it longer," said David, a spry 79-year-old farmer. "So sometimes we could go on the Georgian side when it was short, but now it is almost impossible.”

Cease-fire monitors concerned

The European Union Monitoring Mission monitors the cease-fire. On Saturday, the Mission said, a shot was fired from the South Ossetian side as a Georgian police truck approached a South Ossetian border berm.

Russian troops are using earthen berms, irrigation ditches, fencing and razor wire to demarcate temporary cease-fire lines as international borders.

There have been more and more fences being built, and this is a big concern," European Union Monitoring Mission Spokesman Gergely Fulop said in Tbilisi. Estimating that 27 kilometers of barriers have been built in recent months, he added: "This stops everyday lives of people there. It restricts very badly the freedom of movement there.

Georgian parliamentarian Giorgi Vashadze says the new government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is not standing up to Russia. He says the old UNM party government of President Mikhail Saakashvili would have led an international protest campaign over the fences.

“They are doing that because current government is weak," he said of the Ivanishvili government that took power after parliamentary elections last October. "Believe me, if there was UNM government in this case, there would be huge campaign, international campaign that horrible disaster on Georgian territory.”

Good fences make good neighbors

But Prime Minister Ivanishvili says relations with Russia are improving. Russia has recently re-opened its market to Georgian wines and mineral waters. There is a surge of Russian tourists visiting Georgia, with half a million expected this year. On the new border barriers, he is cautiously optimistic:

“When it comes to the situation in occupied territories, putting barbed wire on so-called border lines, this creates tension with Russia," he told VOA. "But it will be eventually solved, most likely after the Olympic games in Sochi, Russia.”

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, says Russia is building the border fences to show Georgia who is in charge.

“They are just doing it to show Georgia that all relations will be according to Russian rules," Rondeli said in Tbilisi. "Russia recognizes South Ossetia. South Ossetia is an independent state. Georgia has to accept it.”

On the Ossetian side of Khurvaleti village, one resident likes the fence.

“This fence is a good thing," Aslan Ivanovich Huvullova, an Ossetian resident, said in Russian. "This is our border. This is our land. I was born on this land, and my father was also born here.”

Five years after the war, a temporary cease-fire line dividing two regions of Georgia increasingly looks like a border between two nations.
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