For the first time in more than a decade, Georgia is now mustering the will to uphold the principle of the inviolability of recognized borders under international law. Moscow’s policy has largely succeeded in obliterating the Russia-Georgia border in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sectors, which are controlled on the Georgian side by Russia and its local clients. Such control serves to advance the de facto merger of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russia, to perpetuate the vulnerability of a reduced Georgia, and to drain its economy. Moreover, contraband and illicit arms flow across these sectors, enriching the secessionist leaderships as well as elements in Russia’s military and security services.
Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced on July 31 that the Russian side had begun reconstruction of the Abkhaz-controlled, Vesyolaya-Sukhumi stretch of the Georgian railway, without consultation with Georgia, much less its consent (see EDM, August 4). The railway connects Sochi (Russia) with Sukhumi (Abkhazia) across the internationally recognized Russia-Georgia border. The railway has been idle since the 1993 Russian-Abkhaz military operation against Georgia. Unilateral reconstruction could facilitate unauthorized trade and unchecked migration, as well as Abkhazia’s absorption into Russia.
On August 4, a protest note from Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said, “The Russian side grossly violates the existing agreements as well as the principles of international law, thereby impeding normalization of relations between the two sovereign states” (Prime News, August 4). The “existing agreements” under reference are those made and then confirmed by Russian President Vladimir Putin with Georgia’s presidents, Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili, whereby that railway’s reconstruction was to be conditional on the safe return of Georgian refugees to their homes in Abkhazia. With Putin frequently residing in Sochi, he can hardly be unaware of the situation.
Moscow is now signaling that it does not recognize Georgia’s maritime border, either. It has reacted vehemently to Georgia’s first attempts to assert the right of sovereignty in the Black Sea waters off the Abkhaz coast. On July 31, one nautical mile off Sukhumi, a Georgian coast guard cutter fired warning shots at an Abkhaz-flagged cargo vessel, bound for Sukhumi from a Russian port. On August 3, Saakashvili warned that he had ordered the coast guard to fire at, and sink if necessary, foreign ships that enter Georgia’s territorial waters off the Abkhaz coast without Georgian consent. “Just as Georgian cutters don’t belong in Russian waters, so Russian cutters don’t belong in Georgian waters,” he declared in response to a Russian hint at countermeasures.
The warning applies also to Russian cruise ships that recently began regular trips out of Sochi to Abkhaz ports without Georgian authorization. Saakashvili also asked Russia’s citizens to forgo vacation trips to Abkhazia and real estate purchases there, pending resolution of the conflict and restoration of Georgian sovereignty. “Then you will be welcome to visit, spend money on vacations, and buy properties. [Meanwhile,] doing this in disregard of Georgian laws is tantamount to robbery, and we cannot reconcile ourselves to it” (Interfax, August 4).
Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry responded in an August 4 note that any Georgian firing on a Russian or other ship off Abkhazia’s coast “may be regarded as a hostile act, with all the ensuing consequences.” In this connection the note asserted that “Russia’s citizens are entitled to choose whatever vacation destination they prefer” — an assertion that snubs Georgian sovereignty in Abkhazia (Interfax, August 4). Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared, “The Georgian leadership’s statement smacks of piracy” (Itar-Tass, August 4). Russian officials used the familiar technique of casting themselves as protectors of universal values and the other country as a threat to those values: “They in Tbilisi have lost touch with the norms governing the contemporary world” (Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s note).
Commenting on those statements, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania observed, “Waters off Abkhazia are part of Georgia’s territorial waters. Entry of any ship is strictly regulated by international treaties. If any country declares that it does not recognize international law, that it does not recognize our internationally recognized borders, such a position is fraught with very serious consequences” (Imedi Television, August 4). The commander of Georgia’s coast guard squadron based in Poti, Koba Bochorishvili, and the deputy head of the State Border Protection Department, Davit Gulua, told the media that their orders are to warn any unauthorized foreign vessel, detain it if it disobeys, and fire if necessary (Kavkasia Press, August 4; RTR TV, August 4).
In his August 3 press conference, Saakashvili focused on the connection between Georgia’s economic recovery program and the need to plug the black holes around its borders. He described these as twin imperatives and asked Moscow to “understand that Georgia must be a state with safe borders, apt to stop the rampant smuggling.” (Interfax, August 4). Moscow evidently understands, which is why it opposes Georgia’s efforts.