Reports from Georgia indicate that Russian troops have claimed more territory for the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Georgian officials report that Russian troops have installed a series of signs indicating the “state border” of South Ossetia. The European Union has warned of increased tensions in the region as politicians focus on the crisis in Greece, according to the BBC.
EU criticizes new border line
A small section of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline is effectively under Russian control as it is situated behind the new line of fences, but Moscow has denied involvement. Russian troops have been patrolling the border since the brief 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia.
The installation of the new signposts “had led to tension in the area, with potentially negative effects on the local population, their livelihood and freedom of movement,” according to an EU foreign policy spokesperson.
“Steps that could be perceived as provocative must be avoided,” read a statement from the office of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. “The EU reaffirms its full support for Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”
“We’ve lost most of our fields,” said a farmer from the affected area. “The Russians said we are no longer allowed there.”
According to reports the new fences are at least 300 meters further into Georgian territory than before, and brings the border within 500 meters of the main East-West highway in Georgia. The highway links the Georgian capital Tblisi with Black Sea ports, as well as neighboring Turkey.
Strategic oil pipeline no longer in Georgian territory
Russian tanks used the road during the 2008 conflict, moving to within 20 kilometers of Tblisi and exposing Georgia’s weaknesses.
Georgian politicians are worried by what Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili has called “creeping Russian annexation,” which leaves 1.6 kilometers of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa pipeline under Russian control.
The pipeline handles as many as 145,000 barrels of oil per day, transporting it from the Caspian oil fields in Azerbaijan to Georgia’s Black Sea terminal of Supsa. Both Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and BP spokesperson Tamila Chatladze say that BP has not been able to reach the pipeline since the war in 2008. Chantladze emphasized that operations were continuing as normal.
BP’s chief spokesperson in Georgia also played down the issue. “It doesn’t change anything,” said Gia Gvaladze. “We don’t need physical access to maintain it.” The oil company has huge investments in Russia, and is undoubtedly trying to avoid ruffling any feathers in Moscow.
Russian influence on the rise following 2008 war
In 2008 tensions in the region rose due to clashes between Georgian troops and Russian-backed rebels in South Ossetia, which escalated into war with Russia after Georgia attempted to retake the restive province. After a short conflict, South Ossetia declared itself independent from Georgia, a move which was recognized by only a handful of countries including Russia.
Since then Moscow has entrenched itself in the region, signing a 5-year agreement to control South Ossetia’s border with Georgia in April 2009.
The Kremlin has not made any comment on the issue thus far, and commentators believe that this air of mystery is part of its strategy in Georgia just as it is in Ukraine.
In the absence of an official announcement from Moscow, we are left to speculate as to Russia’s motivations. Some believe that it may be expressing its opposition to Georgia joining NATO and the EU, just as it did with Ukraine. Joint U.S.-Georgian military exercises aimed at preparing for Tblisi’s accession to the alliance were criticized by Russian officials.
The appointment of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor Ukraine’s Odessa province has also angered Russia. Saakashvili is famously pro-Western, and became a symbol for the movement against continued Russian influence in the former Soviet Union.
Matters became personal during the 2008 war, when Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to “hang Saakashvili by his balls.” His appointment in the key Ukrainian province of Odessa, which is next to Russian-annexed Crimea, caused consternation in Moscow.
Georgia short on options as EU leaders focus on Greece
The current Georgian government came to power promising to reduce tensions with Moscow, and this latest turn of events undermines its efforts. Instead of normalizing the situation, the Georgian Dream coalition government has seen Moscow further entrench its positions in South Ossetia and its fellow breakaway province of Abkhazia.
Although diplomatic ties are still suspended, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abishidze, promised to bring up the “dangerous provocation” during a scheduled meeting with Russian officials this week.
The “creeping annexation” may be cause for outrage, but Georgia’s options are limited, and European leaders are still focused on Greece. The clearest illustration of the priorities of the EU came this week as the European council president, Donald Tusk, postponed a visit to Georgia because of the ongoing issues in Greece.