Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
Russia has put new border markers on the edge of Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region that have left a portion of a BP-operated oil pipeline within Russian-occupied territory.
Over the weekend of July 11-12 Russian troops put up new signs marking the “South Ossetian border”, pushing the self-declared border a few hundred metres deeper into Georgia’s territory, close to the villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani, about 65km north-west of the capital Tbilisi. Within view of the markers is Georgia’s major east-west highway, the key link to neighbouring Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.
The move highlights the risks to Georgia’s territorial integrity, and to the pipelines that run through this country of 3.7mn, which transport Caspian gas and oil to Europe, bypassing Russia.
The new signs marked off a new piece of land that includes a 1,065km slice of the key Baku-Supsa pipeline, also known as the Western Route Export Pipeline (WREP). The 833km pipeline, second in size to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, runs from Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea terminal of Supsa and has the capacity of transporting up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
BP, which has significant interests in Russia, has downplayed the development, stating that the situation is not new as the specific portion has been effectively in a Russian-controlled area since the end of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008. The operator has not been able to carry out on-the-spot inspections since then, but the pipeline has been functioning on a business-as-usual mode, delivering Azerbaijan’s oil.
“Physical access is not necessary to monitor the conduit as we have other means to do it,” Tamila Chantladze, the company’s spokesperson told bne IntelliNews in a phone interview in the capital Tbilisi. With or without signs, “there are plans to upgrade the pipeline, including re-routing that specific portion in Akhali Gori area,” she added.
She echoed Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze who on July 13 said that “if the pipeline faces any problem, we already have an alternative plan,” adding that the Georgian state budget receives €7mn annually from the transit of the conduit.
Russian and South Ossetian soldiers have been slowly installing barbed wire and fences along parts of the administrative boundary line (ABL) that separates Georgia proper from South Ossetia since the end of the 2008 war. On August 26, 2008, Russia recognised both South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states, hence defining the ABL as an international border.
The fence is roughly 55km long, about 12% of the whole ABL, explains John Durnin, spokesperson at the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) and although it is difficult to say whether the signs mark newly-grabbed areas of land by the Russian “they are an clear indication that borderisation continues, and that’s an illegal process”, he told bne IntelliNews.
The land grab has had a severe impact on the everyday life in the communities living along the boundary line. It has left farmers cut off from their orchards, hitting hard on their livelihoods. In some cases, like in the village of Akhali Khurvaleti, the fence goes through villages, splitting them in two. In early 2013, in the village of Ditsi, the fence even ran through a graveyard – until the EUMM objected, and the path was changed.
“We can’t cultivate our land or take our cattle to graze, we risk to be arrested and detained,” a farmer near the village of Dvani told bne IntelliNews in early spring.
On July 14, dozens of Georgian citizens staged a demonstration in the newly-marked area, bringing flags, carrying signs, and chanting “No to occupation”.
The Georgian government criticised the move, calling the “illegal” marking yet another “dangerous provocation” by the “Russian occupying forces”. However, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stressed that the situation is not new and that Georgia “should use all the available international levers calmly, but firmly and in a principled way”, hoping that “the Russian authorities will take interest in such provocations and this process will stop”.
However, in a rare phone conversation between two high-ranking officials, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin told his counterpart Davit Dondua that Tbilisi should re-direct its “complaints” to Tskhinvali [South Ossetia’s de-facto capital].
Defence Minister Tinatin Khidasheli told reporters that as 20% of Georgian territory remains under occupation, the new markers are “a continuation of the same policy the country has been experiencing until now”.
The former Soviet republic is seeking membership of the Nato military alliance and the European Union and some see the move as yet another sign Moscow is sending to say it will not accept Georgia in the North Atlantic Alliance. Russia and Georgia do not have diplomatic relations, but the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has been trying not to antagonise Moscow.
Khidasheli has rejected recent Kremlin criticism of US-Georgian military exercises. “Military trainings or political cooperation with either Nato or the European Union, are not against anybody. They are to strengthen this country,” she stressed in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews.
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