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Adrienne Warren

The South Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts vs. Future Ambitions?

This August marks the 5th anniversary of the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The two countries came to a diplomatic stalemate which has only begun to thaw since the beginning of this year–with both countries taking small steps towards repairing their relations. Some have argued that this is due to a change of power in Georgia, with the new Premier Bidzina Ivanishvili declaring the improvement of relations with Russia a priority of his foreign policy. However, in spite of positive developments, Russia’s actions in the last week have sent shock waves back into the heart of Georgia-Russian relations…

Gori, Georgia. author: imolcho. sourc:e Flickr

Gori, Georgia. author: imolcho. sourc:e Flickr

It is being reported that Russia is building an artificial fence around the territory of South Ossetia in an attempt to formalise the outcome of the August 2008 Georgia-Russia War. The controversial move was originally announced in June, leading to rising concerns in the region, and fears that the new demarcation line could increase tensions in an area still recovering from conflict. Russian and Ossetian officials worked on the construction of the fence close to the Georgian town of Gori last week, in spite of Georgia roundly rejecting the idea. The rejection was largely backed by the international community, as NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen denounced the move back in June, calling it unacceptable, saying, “Building such fences is a violation of international law. Building fences impedes freedom of movement, it can further inflame tensions, it is simply not acceptable and we urge Russia to live up to her international obligations.”

The news of the launch of the fence-construction has been met with concern, anger, and a call for action to reverse the move. A statement issued by the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia spoke of “concern about the on-going construction of physical obstacles, the placement of fences and the creation of earth berms and ditches along the Administrative Boundary Lines with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This has a growing impact on the freedom of movement and livelihood of the local communities.”

The statement continued:

“This ever increasing number of obstacles affects livelihood issues, as it disrupts patterns of life of the local population and divides communities. Furthermore, these obstacles increasingly limit any possible people-to people contact, which is an essential ingredient to build confidence amongst communities.”

The Georgian National Platform, via the Eastern Partnerhip Civil Society Forum, has issued an appeal to the EU’s Catherine Ashton, and Commissioner European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle. The appeal calls of on the EU to take action in light of the latest developments taking place:

“…We would like to request that you step up efforts in Georgia and in the region to oppose the Russian Federation’s policy of establishing new insurmountable “borders” and erecting various forms of barricades, barbed wire fences, reinforced concrete structures, walls, and trenches on the territory of Georgia.”

The letter elaborates:

“Since the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Russian military forces have been deployed on Georgian territory in gross violation of international law and the sovereign rights of a nation, and as a result, the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia and the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast remain occupied. Ethnic cleansing took place on these territories, and this has been confirmed by many international organisations. The Russian military is deliberately making rules for crossing the administrative boundary more difficult and is constructing insurmountable barriers in such a way that they are dividing families and private and communal properties, and impeding freedom of movement.”

The Georgian National Platform continues,

“This process is continuing and it has only intensified during the past few months. Beyond the barbed wire fences lie arable land, sacred places and cemeteries, infrastructure for water, both drinking and irrigation, and more. Cases of repression experienced by the local population for ‘violating the border’ are of great concern.”

Russia’s actions in Georgia bring focus to the issue of frozen conflicts in the Caucasus region–an on-going point of debate, concern and diplomatic challenge. Konrad Zasztowt,  an expert of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, recently commented on the effect frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet area may have on future EU integration.

“The existence of conflicts in the post-Soviet area should not be considered some insurmountable obstacle to the process of European integration. Although the Eastern Partnership is not a security programme, this programme will have a positive impact on regional security as a whole. The EU can be an important mediator in the settlement of these conflicts. As for the possibility of countries with “frozen conflicts” joining the EU, we can cite the example of the Republic of Cyprus.”

When asked about the EU’s role in mediating issues of territorial integrity, Zasztowt explained:

“The EU is trying to be neutral and impartial in any conflict to preserve the opportunity to be a mediator between the parties to the confrontation. There are various tools that can be used by the EU in conflict resolution. But it is difficult to say how these methods can be applied in the South Caucasus. Will these steps be effective?”

Zasztowt also touched on the issue of economic sanctions, as a tool for mitigating the unlawful occupation of territory, and whether this has implications for EU-hopeful States. Zasztowt elucidated, using a hypothetical example:

“If Nagorno-Karabakh is colonized, the situation will be subject to EU sanctions. But the economic situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is very bad, there’s just nothing to do for new settlements. The colonization of these areas is impossible. EU politicians and, in particular, the leaders of Poland have repeatedly said that they recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan  and Georgia. But that does not mean that the Western countries will automatically interfere in the ‘frozen conflicts’. From a political point of view, the EU’s position is that all conflicts should be resolved through peaceful means.”

However, Cécile Druey and Liana Fix of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, have criticised the EU’s lack of success in resolving such conflicts–particularly in the case of Russia and Georgia, saying:

“The key question remains: Is it possible for former Soviet countries to have good relations with Europe andRussia at the same time? To be perfectly honest, Europe has to admit that its own efforts to facilitate a solution of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway territories had only limited success. After the “hot phase” of the conflict, Georgia quickly slid down on the European Union’s agenda of priorities. Maintaining good relations with Russia trumped any further pressuring for Georgia’s case.”

Druey and Fix in turn tell Georgia now to get its hoped for rapprochement up this time around, warning:

>“In light of the fading interest and ambiguous feelings, Georgia should not expect any meaningful support from Europe for the long-term normalization of its relations with Russia. Nor is a European initiative for the resolution of the conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia likely in the near future. Georgia has to go down this path on its own—and get it right.”

sources: Carnegie Moscow CentrePISM 

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Graduated in International Relations and Russian. Resident of Estonia, but a citizen of the world. Most interested in contributing to the progress and education of mankind--as the primary tool of achieving global unity.

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