Georgia: Controversy surrounds claim of Russian, South Ossetian advance in Racha
|Publication Date||22 July 2009|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Georgia: Controversy surrounds claim of Russian, South Ossetian advance in Racha, 22 July 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a8414f818.html [accessed 11 July 2014]|
Molly Corso: 7/22/09
A controversy in the remote mountainous region of Racha is highlighting the fact that in some areas of Georgia, the border separating Georgian and Russian forces is blurred.
Racha is an isolated, high-altitude territory to the west of South Ossetia and to the south of Russia with indirect access to the strategic Roki Tunnel, which links South Ossetia and Russia. The area was bombed multiple times during the 2008 war with Russia – reportedly in response to Georgian troops attempting to use its roads to access South Ossetia.
In June, opposition leaders accused the government of effectively ceding 20 kilometers of Rachan territory to Russia after border guards supposedly retreated from a bridge leading to the Manasoni Pass, which connects Racha with Russia. The bridge was destroyed on June 11 for reasons that remain unclear.
Georgian media outlets claimed that the Russians and South Ossetians had taken control of a Soviet-era weather observation building that stands at the Pass's highest point, reportedly overlooking the border between Racha and the Russian Federation. Officials and pro-government parliamentarians denied the reports, but did not offer explanations of their own.
A recent visit by EurasiaNet to the Manasoni Pass and bridge illustrated the difficulty of trying to verify the accuracy of the reports. The situation appeared muddled.
A border guard located at the Manasoni Pass bridge told EurasiaNet that the weather observation building is part of a "neutral zone" that is patrolled by Russians and Ossetians, as well as Georgians. The pass, he claimed, like the building itself, remains under Georgian control. "It belongs to all of us," said the guard, who declined to give his name. "Our flag is flying. They can go up and see it in their territory and we go up, too," the guard said in reference to the Russians and Ossetians.
Akaki Malgaldadze, the Border Patrol section leader for Manasoni, refused to confirm or to deny reports that the lookout has passed over to Russian or South Ossetian control. Malgaldadze also wouldn't clarify the bridge guard's claim.
Cartographers contacted by EurasiaNet said that they had no knowledge of such a "neutral zone" in Racha. The Georgian Border Patrol in Tbilisi did not respond to EurasiaNet's request for information. A EurasiaNet reporter was allowed to cross over the bridge leading to the Manasoni Pass, but could not travel to the observation point itself.
One expert on South Ossetia states that the Russians have established "zones of influence" in areas like Racha that they patrol regularly. "There was not such an announcement officially, but Russia has its zone of influence and within that zone they always patrol on foot and by plane," said Zurab Bendianishvili, a former parliamentary advisor and native of Racha who is now the director of a collective of non-governmental organizations.
"That concerns the Kazbegi region [a district in eastern Georgia on the border with Russia – ed] and Manasoni Pass. I saw [them] with my own eyes [in June in Kazbegi]," he said in reference to Russian air patrols.
Roman Marsagishvili, the Kazbegi District's representative in parliament, told EurasiaNet that there were "pretensions" from South Ossetians concerning Kazbegi, but that no attempt had been made to annex the territory.
Back in Racha, in the village of Glola, the closest population point to the Manasoni Pass and bridge, residents also report no sign of attempted annexation by Russian or South Ossetian troops. But they remain divided about whether or not Russian or South Ossetian forces are actually in the area.
Their chief concern is that this year, for the first time, they have been denied access to traditional grazing areas for their cattle, located about 12 kilometers up the Pass. No alternative pastures exist.
While the bridge, which links Glola to the Manasoni Pass pasture land, has been rebuilt, landslide rubble that blocks a route used by locals has not been cleared. "Last year, we worked there and every year we worked the land and there was no problem," said Guram Bakuradze, a tractor driver who normally clears the road to the Pass after the annual snows.
"This year is the only exception, the only time they have not let us up," he said in reference to Georgian border guards.
Other changes reportedly have also occurred. According to Bendianishvili, each June Ossetians and Georgians celebrate a shared holy day at a spot within the Manasoni Pass. This year, the celebration was canceled after Ossetians allegedly warned the Georgian population that Russians would be in the area, he claimed.
Mamuka Areshidze, a conflict analyst based in Tbilisi, believes that the Russians are quietly, but steadily, trying to secure high-altitude outlooks in areas along the Russian-Georgian border as well as to establish a "buffer zone" between South Ossetia's Soviet-era administrative border and the Georgian-controlled regions of Imereti, Racha and Mtskheta-Mtianeti, which contains Kazbegi.
Alpinists active in those areas and interviewed by EurasiaNet said that they had seen nothing to support the claim.
One senior government official similarly dismisses the notion of a creeping Russian advance into Georgian-controlled territory. Although the government is "concerned" about reported Russian attempts to claim a village in Abkhazia, near the Psou River, said State Minister for Territorial Integrity Temur Iakobashvili, there have been no post-war attempts to annex Georgian villages or areas bordering the South Ossetia conflict zone, he said.
Locals in Glola told EurasiaNet that they do not fear a Russian attack, but worry that their livelihood, which depends on tourists as well as cattle, is now under threat.
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.