Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Ambassador Zurab Abashidze, the special envoy of the prime minister of Georgia, held a special meeting in Prague, on July 7 (Agenda.ge, July 7). In the absence of regular diplomatic relations between the two countries since Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008, the “Prague dialogue” remains the only regular channel of communication between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Judging by their official statements, the two parties failed to reach a final agreement on the establishment of “trade corridors” between Russia and Armenia via Georgia and its occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow is extremely interested in creating such transit “corridors” as conditions gradually “heat up” between Armenia and Azerbaijan around Karabakh (Kommersant, April 2).
The idea behind establishing these “corridors” across the Russian-occupied territories of Georgia dates back to 2011, when Moscow had to seek Tbilisi’s consent for Russia to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Civil Georgia, November 18, 2011). Georgia, a preexisting WTO member, was one of the final obstacles before Russia would be allowed to join this organization (Idfi.ge, November 25, 2016). But today, Russia is no less interested in seeking overland connections with the entire South Caucasus—and first of all, with Armenia, a fellow member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). However, the Georgian government’s position is that this issue should be decided strictly bilaterally by Moscow and Tbilisi, while Russia does not want to leave out Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose “independence” the Kremlin recognized in 2008—after invading Georgia and occupying these regions.
Ambassador Abashidze remarked, in an interview with this author, that the 2011 agreement on “trade administration,” which paved the way for Russia’s WTO accession, was concluded between Tbilisi and Moscow. The separatist regions are not mentioned in it (Author’s interview, April 12). Nonetheless, Russia has persistently tried to force Georgia to agree to Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s participation in this deal.
It is not by chance that, prior to the latest Karasin-Abashidze meeting in Prague, Moscow took a number of steps to increase military pressure on Tbilisi. For instance, on July 4, Russian soldiers again moved the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) with South Ossetia, this time near the village of Bershueti, in Gori municipality (Tabula.ge, July 4). The agricultural lands and properties of several Georgian citizens thus ended up on the other side of the occupation line. Armed soldiers installed new so-called “green signs” marking the “state border” near the villages of Bershueti and Sobisi—on plots of land belonging to the local population. The border markings were installed 700 meters deeper into Georgian-controlled territory (Georgianjournal.ge, July 5). According to Mamuka Areshidze, who has been following these developments, “The Russian troops were only 450–500 meters from the Baku–Tbilisi–Poti–Batumi highway, which is strategically important for the entire South Caucasus. If the Russians cut this highway, Georgia will face serious problems” (Author’s interview, July 8).
The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia has called the Russian activities near the highway “unwarranted” (Eumm.eu, July 4). While Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili referred to the recent events as “creeping occupation” (Eadaily.com, July 5). “This is a medieval logic to put pressure on Georgia,” he said (Ukrinform.ru July 8).
The seizure of the new Georgian territory was carried out immediately after the Russian army concluded large-scale military exercises in occupied South Ossetia. An important and unique feature of these latest training maneuvers was the mention of weapons of mass destruction in the description of the simulated scenario that would be exercised. “The service members will work out their units’ proper actions in response to air raids of the hypothetical aggressor, overcoming the contaminated areas in the conditions of the enemy’s use of weapons of mass destruction [author’s emphasis] and electronic suppression,” says the statement released by the Russian Army command just ahead of the exercise (see EDM, June 22).
In parallel, Russian troops were also active in Abkhazia (Interpressnews.ge, June 29). On June 30, military maneuvers began in this occupied region and are set to last for two weeks (Mil.ru June 30). Thirty tanks and several units of Abkhazian armed formations are involved in this exercise, which features shooting drills in the mountains and on the coast (Apsnylife.ru, June 30; Peacekeeper.ru, July 3). The command of the 7th Russian military base in Abkhazia reported that the purpose of the exercises is “to deflect the attack of a potential enemy from the sea and other possible directions, both during the day and at night.” This year alone, the Russian army in Abkhazia is scheduled to hold about a hundred military exercises (Sputnik-abkhazia.ru, June 1).
Last May, Russian troops in Abkhazia held exercises with the use of a Raduga-1M space satellite. More than 400 communications specialists and 50 pieces of military equipment took part (Rambler.ru, May 22). The Raduga-1M (a.k.a. Globus-1M) is a third-generation military communications satellite and is part of the Unified Space Satellite Communications System of the Russian Federation (Sukhum.moscow, May 22).
The Georgian authorities hope for diplomatic support from the international community, primarily from Western states. “It is extremely important [for] any action that violates Georgia’s territorial integrity to be strongly condemned. Georgia will use all diplomatic means to stop the creeping occupation,” Tengiz Pkhaladze, the foreign policy advisor to the president of Georgia, declared (President.gov.ge, July 4).
Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed innocence: The Prague meeting “was overshadowed by a provocation. False allegations that are fabricated in such cases are very repetitive. Tbilisi claimed one more time that South Ossetia is putting up its border signs in the depth of Georgian territory. We have no doubt that the review of this matter via the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism will convincingly expose these absurd claims, like was the case all previous times before,” the Russian foreign ministry alleged (Mid.ru, July 5).
Undoubtedly, Moscow will continue to try to exert pressure on Georgia, including by using “military tools.” The goal is to force Tbilisi into concessions on several important issues, including to agree to the establishment of “trade corridors” with the participation of the separatist regions—Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such an agreement would give Moscow access to the Sochi–Sukhumi–Tbilisi–Yerevan railway, which may eventually extend also to Iran. In addition, it would open for Russia access to the Vladikavkaz–Tbilisi highway. Russia’s ultimate goal related to these transit corridors is to restore its influence throughout the “Greater Caucasus.” Political support from the Western community will be crucial more than ever for Georgia to be able to resist these attempts.