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Creeping Russian border in Georgia..how & who to stop?!

Ashraf AboArafe

While the world was focusing on the eurozone crisis in Greece, the nuclear talks in Vienna, and Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, things were heating up in Georgia.

On July 16, 2008 Moscow-backed security forces moved the administrative boundary fence dividing the Russian occupied region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia – thereby placing more Georgian territory under Russian control.

These same security forces, armed with assault rifles, were also seen crossing into Georgian-controlled territory and tearing down a Georgian flag.

On 20 March 2017, the Embassy of Georgia to the Arab Republic of Egypt held press-conference for representatives of the Egyptian media dedicated to the recent development in the territories of Georgia under occupation. Namely, the attention was paid to alarming steps made by the Russian Federation with the particular focus on the scheduled referendum in Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and continuation of closure of so called crossing points along the occupation line of Abkhazia region.

The Russian occupation regime in Tskhinvali (Georgia) scheduled a referendum on 9 April 2017 on changing the name of one of the oldest Georgian regions into the one similar to the federal subject of the Russian Federation (i.e. “South Ossetia-Alania”, like “North Ossetia-Alania”).

The talks about the referendum started in parallel with the talks about the referendum on integration of Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, which is announced to be held in 2017 too. This referendum is a step intended to lay a ground for illegal annexation of the occupied region.

Since the large-scale military intervention in Georgia in August 2008, Moscow has continued the policy of creeping annexation, directed against Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. With this purpose, the Russian Federation signed more than 80 so-called “interstate, intergovernmental or interagency agreements” with its occupation regimes in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali.

By signing the so-called treaties “on alliance and strategic partnership” with Sokhumi in 2014 and “on alliance and integration” with Tskhinvali in 2015, Moscow launched the absorption of Georgia’s occupied regions into Russia’s military, security, political, economic, social and humanitarian system. Although the documents are null and void from the standpoint of international law, they prepare ground for illegal annexation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions into Russia.

By naming Georgia’s occupied region after the subject of the Russian Federation Moscow starts to use the remaining instruments against the Georgian statehood.

Holding a referendum in the occupied territories of Georgia, while the ethnic Georgian population have fled as a result of ethnic cleansing and the occupying power fully controls the situation on the ground, is illegal and cannot have any legal effect.

The Russian occupation regime in Sokhumi (Georgia) started decrease of number of so called crossing points on the occupation line between Abkhazia, Georgia and the rest part of Georgia from six to one.

Two crossing points were shut down in the first half of 2016. In December 2016, the Russian occupation regime in Sokhumi issued the so called “decree” on closing two more crossing points, which entered into force in February 2017.

Closure of the so-called crossing points along the occupation line of the Abkhazia region with the declared aim to leave only one through the Enguri River makes the life of the local population even harder.

When considering this issue, it should be underlined that, according to our sources which is in line with EU Monitoring Mission’s data, the number of crossings at Khurcha-Nabakevi point is approximately 550-650 persons per day, while the statistic of crossings at Orsantia-Otobaia point poses 600-700 persons per day.

According to the Russian occupation regime in Sokhumi, approximately 1.200.000 persons cross the administrative boundary line per year, which means that around 3.200 people cross the occupation line daily.

These statistics prove that one or two crossing points physically cannot serve this number of people. Closure of all three crossing points of so called “lower Gali” will seriously aggravate the humanitarian situation on the ground. It will have very negative impact on vulnerable groups of population, in particular: people in need of medical care and/or medical evacuation; elderlies; women with children; families divided by the occupation line; as well as schoolchildren, who go to the schools on the territory controlled by the Government of Georgia to get the education in native language.

In conformity to the available statistics, in 2013 and 2014, around 100 schoolchildren from the occupied Abkhazia region attended classes on the territory controlled by the Government of Georgia.

As a result of restricted movement, in 2016, the number of schoolchildren, crossing the occupation line to attend classes on the territory controlled by the Government of Georgia was significantly decreased (25 schoolchildren in comparison with around 100 pupils in 2014).

After the closure of crossing points, these pupils will need to cover 50-60 km to attend schools in native language on the territory controlled by the Government of Georgia.

Furthermore, the Russian occupation regime in Sokhumi decided to extend the so-called “border zone” in the Gali district of Abkhazia, adjacent to the rest of Georgia, which will further restrict freedom of movement inside this zone for both the residents of the villages within the zone as well as those living in the rest of Abkhazia region.

Apart from all aforesaid, the great concern of the Georgian side is that the closure of crossing points will also highly escalate the situation with arbitrary detention and kidnapping for so called “illegal border crossing”.

According to the Russian FSB officials in occupied Abkhazia region, during 2013 more than 2.000 people were detained. In 2014 (January-October period), the number reached to nearly 3.000. In 2015, more than 2.550 people were detained. In 2016 (June-August period), 900 people were illegally detained.

Closure of the so called crossing points along with establishment of the so called “border zone” in the Gali district is aimed at isolation of people and directed against the Georgian Government’s policy of engagement. The annexation policy continues on the background of severe security and human rights situation on the ground.

People suffer from the ongoing occupation and factual annexation process. They are deprived from the fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement, residence, property, the right to education in the native language, etc.

Installation of razor and barbed wire fences, so called “border” sign posts and other artificial obstacles by Russian border guards directly affect the everyday life of the locals, who are losing access to farmlands, religious sites and cemeteries.

Georgians are subject to ethnic discrimination on the occupied territories. New regulations provide for additional restrictions for residence, work, free movement, and exercising property rights by ethnic Georgians in both Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions.

Today we are witnessing a new form of linguistic discrimination. Prohibition of education in native language for the ethnic Georgians is of particular concern. Since 2015 Georgian language curricula has been replaced with the Russian one in 11 schools in Gali with the aim to totally cease the education in Georgian language in Gali schools in the future. This decision has drastically affected the quality of learning of the schoolchildren in Gali as they do not have sufficient Russian language skills.

The alarming security and humanitarian situation on the ground is vividly demonstrated by the incident on 19 May, 2016, when the so-called “border guard” brutally killed the Georgian citizen on the territory, controlled by the Georgian Government.

This situation is all the more alarming given the fact that these regions remain the black holes, inaccessible territories for the international human rights monitors. Even the EUMM, which remains the only international mechanism on the Georgian soil, is still prevented from implementation of its full mandate by not being allowed in the regions.

We cannot turn the blind eye to the steps of the Russian Federation directed against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and statehood of Georgia.

The decision on referendum as well as closure of crossing points are vivid examples of Russia’s intentional response to the peace policy of the Georgian Government, which is directed towards the peaceful resolution of the Russia-Georgia conflict, constructive engagement within the Geneva International Discussions as well as towards the confidence building and reconciliation between communities divided by war and occupation lines.

The Russia responds to our constructive approach with increasing isolation of the occupied territories and steps to their annexation. This kind of aggressive acts seriously undermine our peaceful efforts and threaten security and stability not only in Georgia but in a wider region.

The international community should condemn the so called referendum and send a clear signal to the Russian Federation that this kind of act of aggression is not acceptable.

The international society should urge the Russian Federation to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours and comply with its international obligations.

The firm stance and consolidated efforts of international society is crucial to prevent another act of annexation in Europe.

Your strong positions and clear-cut statements regarding the referendum and closure of crossing points are needed to be made in advance, with the aim to prevent further alarming developments in the occupied regions.

Finally, Creeping Russian border in Georgia..how & who to stop?!

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