Five years on, Georgia still counting cost of Russia war
GUGUTIANKARI – Agence France-Presse
A woman looks through 1.2-metre high coils of razor wire that divide the Russian-backed breakaway territory from Georgian-controlled land in Khurvaleti village. AFP photoThe 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the separatist region of South Ossetia may have only lasted five days but five years on, Amiran Gugutishvili is still counting the cost.
Snaking through the burnt-out shell of what was once his cousin’s house are 1.2-meter high coils of razor wire that divide the Russian-backed breakaway territory from Georgian-controlled land. The wire also cuts Gugutishvili off from the fruit orchards that once provided his livelihood.
“It feels like I am living in a prison,” Gugutishvili, 67, told Agence France-Presse, pointing at the tangled grapevines that he says are now only patrolled by armed Russian border guards with dogs. “There is no freedom -- what sort of freedom can this be?” On the night of August 7-8, 2008, Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili launched an offensive to reclaim breakaway region South Ossetia only to see Russian forces sweep into Georgia.
Until then, the division between Georgia and the self-proclaimed territory of South Ossetia was ill-defined.
Despite a brutal conflict in the early 1990s that saw the breakaway territory declare independence and set up its own administration, the region was a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages where people on both sides often worked together and intermarried.
Now though, five years on from the war, links between the two sides have been almost totally severed and Russian forces continue to build new fences and lay razor wire.
“No party to this war has got what it was seeking,” admitted Georgia’s Reintegration Minister Paata Zakareishbili whose job is officially aimed at reintegrating the territory Tbilisi no longer controls.
‘It brought more suffering’
Russia officially recognized South Ossetia - along with another breakaway Georgian region Abkhazia - as independent states and Moscow now has thousands of troops stationed in the strategic region.
Half a decade after the war, Georgia’s turbulent political landscape is now transformed and the wisdom of Saakashvili’s decision to launch the fateful offensive is coming under ever greater scrutiny. Once pre-eminent, with his second and last term ending in October, Saakashvili is now a lame duck president after his party lost out to a coalition headed by billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili, who made his vast fortune in Russia in the early 1990s, has made normalizing relations with Moscow his foreign policy priority and pledged to improve ties with the separatist authorities.
Zakareishbili, a member of the coalition that ousted Saakashvili’s United National Movement party from power at parliamentary elections last year, said the president’s attempt to settle the festering territorial dispute backfired spectacularly. “In the end, it brought him an unexpected outcome -- a full-scale war and more refugees, more human suffering,” Zakareishbili said.
Sitting on the porch of her concrete house, one of around 2,000 built by the government in the settlement of Tserovani for Georgians forced to flee their homes during the war, Lila Beridze said the past five years have been a constant struggle.
“Obviously being able to live in the town where you were born is better,” said Beridze, who fled her home in the town of
Akhalgori when it was seized by Russian and Ossetian forces. Once a kindergarten teacher, Beridze says she now struggles to make ends meet with the roughly $60 (45 euro) she says she receives each month from the government.
Georgia’s new government has mooted a possible investigation into the handling of the war but officials in charge at the time remain adamant that the fight was forced upon them.
Any move to accept the status of the breakaway territories is unthinkable though, and Ivanishvili’s pledge to carry on the previous government’s pro-Western course means any optimism is limited.
“Georgia cannot cross certain red lines,” says George Khutsishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict Negotiation.