Tensions over the construction of the Georgian police checkpoint in Chorchana village of Tbilisi-controlled Khashuri municipality, near the occupied village of Tsnelisi seems to have subsided somewhat. However, the flareup of tensions caught the media and observers off guard.
The “checkpoint crisis” has marked the departure from the familiar pattern. Recently, the tensions in Tskhinvali region were mostly linked to so called “borderization” process – construction of the physical obstacles by the Russian occupation forces and Tskhinvali’s Russia-backed authorities to physically mark the “border”. The latest such incident, in the village of Gugutiantkari, has left several houses stranded on the other side, forcing Georgian citizens to drag all of their possessions on the right side of the fence overnight.
The “borderization” process impacts lives, but it is also deeply humiliating and politically damaging for the government in Tbilisi. Vano Abramashvili, Executive Director of the Caucasian House, a think-tank and cultural research association, tells Civil Georgia that “perception of government’s inaction is prevalent in the society” concerning the incidents on the occupation line.
Shota Utiashvili, senior fellow at the Rondeli Institute, a think-tank, who also led the Ministry of Interior’s information and analytical department in 2004-2012 agrees. He told Civil Georgia that the current administration made a mistake by dismantling the police checkpoints alongside the occupation line in a failed bid to repair relations with Russia. Instead of leading to detente, Utiashvili says, Russia now aims to seize the opportunity of “Georgia having a particularly weak government” and to force as many concessions as possible by ratcheting up pressure through particularly brazen incidents of “borderization” – such as in Gugutiantkari.
Could it be that Tbilisi has finally snapped?
Abramishvili thinks so: for him, the Chorchana/Tsnelisi incident points to Tbilisi’s new, more assertive tactic. Utiashvili says, the Georgian Dream administration, nearing the end of its second parliamentary term, has exhausted all hopes for further de-escalation with Russia, short of making strategic concessions. This further aggravates the situation on the ground, Utiashvili believes.
Perception of weakness vis-a-vis Russia is particularly damaging to the government, since it has been facing massive public protest over humiliation of the Russian MPs’ presence in the Georgian parliament. In particular, the police is hard-pressed to present a more appealing face, since the subsequent violent dispersal of the protest rally by the police.
Olesya Vartanyan, a long-time Georgia-watcher from the International Crisis Group (ICG) says erecting the checkpoint was a sign of desperation from the Georgian side, taking into account that for many years the Georgian government has been observing fencing process, being unable to curtail it despite direct contacts with Moscow or through the support of the foreign allies, not to mention the Geneva International Discussions or IPRM meetings in Ergneti village.
Tactically, the construction of the police checkpoint was prudent, Vartanyan thinks. By choosing the least populated and quite distant area, Tbilisi could test the reactions and mitigate possible consequences. So far, she says, the incident played out well for Tbilisi – it attracted a lot of attention, but very few critical remarks were directed at Tbilisi.
A quick victory for Tbilisi?
Vartanyan says Tbilisi’s move caught Russians and Tskhinvali officials by surprise. They got used to fencing, building of watch towers and surveillance cameras eliciting little or no physical resistance from the Georgian side. “In the case of Tsnelisi they [Tskhinvali and Moscow] were effectively left with no tools”, Vartanyan tells Civil Georgia and adds that to start shooting, would have been too costly for both Tskhinvali and Moscow with too many eyes watching.
She argues that using police stations is also a clever move, since Tbilisi demonstrates that Georgia’s moves are about protection of local population rather than an offensive posture.
In this light, for official Tbilisi the Chorchana/Tsnelisi story seems like a quick and important victory. The government showed itself capable of resistance without sacrificing much diplomatically and shoring up its shaken prestige domestically.
It is now, however, time for Georgian government to consider, whether this temporary tactic is fit for becoming a part of new strategy.
From Tactics to Strategy?
Vartanyan told Civil Georgia that “the issue of protection of the population along he separation line has been a standing issue for the Georgian leadership for a long time, as the people from the area have told me so many times that they felt insecure and the ambiguity of their situation was killing their families, lives and prospects of staying in the home villages”. The separation line with Abkhazia has very similar problems with many areas where people, Vartanyan says, despite living on Georgia-controlled area, suffer from uncertainty caused by the continued borderization.
The government in Tbilisi may decide to continue the trend and start construction of the police stations along the occupation lines. But, Vartanyan adds, this will lead to the new reality in the conflict zone.
If construction of the police stations continues, the police officers will have to transit from being observers, mainly concerned with early warning, to becoming the leading security providers to the population in the area. They will have take an active posture on mundane matters such as harvesting the crops and the lost cattle that crossed the line, as well as more serious matter of numerous detentions for “violation of the border”. All of that, while they will still be facing the Russian military on the other side.
Vartanyan fears, Tskhinvali and Moscow may use such a renewed stance by the Georgian police as a pretext for launching more significant military buildup along the line of contact. Instead of partially fenced administrative border lines (ABLs) Georgia may end up seeing more solid military fortifications, similar to those seen during the Cold War and in many modern conflict areas.
The coming weeks and months will show which course of action Tbilisi would take. So far, it is clear that the international actors would have to brace themselves for more dynamic reality on the ground.