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South Ossetia orders tit-for-tat checkpoint construction in latest border escalation 

30 August 2019
South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov during a visit to Tsnelisi on 28 August. (Photo: Yuzhnaya Osetiya)

South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov has announced the construction of a checkpoint in the village of Tsnelisi (Uista) after unsuccessful negotiations with the Georgian government to remove their own checkpoint in the area. 

Georgian, Russian, and South Ossetian officials held a ‘technical meeting’ in the village of Chorchana on Friday after Georgian officials refused to comply with South Ossetian demands to demolish a new police checkpoint near the disputed border.

Georgia set up their own checkpoint on Georgian government-controlled territory near Tsnelisi amidst increased tension following the erection of new fencing along the line dividing South Ossetia and Georgian-controlled territory by Russian troops.

After the ‘technical meeting’ on 30 August, President Bibilov said that South Ossetia’s demand for the checkpoint to be removed still stood.

‘The technical meeting has ended. We haven’t come to a common understanding yet’, he said. ‘Negotiations will continue in the following days. The KGB [State Security Committee] has been ordered to set up a checkpoint in order for the people living in this village to feel protected’.

Following Bibilov’s statement, South Ossetia’s KGB announced they had launched ‘a humanitarian operation’ in Tsnelisi ‘to ensure the security of citizens of the republic and maintain the stability of the military and political situation in the region’.

On 29 August, the 95th Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) meeting between Georgian, Russian, and South Ossetian officials ended without an agreement.

Following the meeting, the deputy head of the analytical department of the Georgian State Security Service, Irakli Antadze,  told journalists that South Ossetian representatives took an ‘extremely destructive stand’ and ‘spoke in the language of ultimatums’, which he said was ‘unacceptable during negotiations’. 

The OSCE, who co-chair the IPRM, wrote in a statement that the meeting ended prematurely after it was ‘disrupted’.

The 95th Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meeting ended prematurely. (Photo: EUMM)

Antadze said that the Georgian checkpoint was located on territory controlled by the Georgian government and that it would not be dismantled. 

‘If there is any aggravation [of the situation], full responsibility will be placed on the Russian Federation, which effectively controls the occupied territory’, he said. 

The ‘technical meeting’ on 30 August, which lasted for about two hours, ‘contributed to the full de-escalation of the situation’, Kakhaber Kemoklidze, the head of Georgia’s National Security Council Apparatus told journalists.

He added that Georgian government and South Ossetian representatives had different positions regarding the location of the checkpoint, however, they had not discussed the demand to demolish the checkpoint.

‘As for the ultimatum [of demolishing the checkpoint by 6:00], our [South Ossetian] colleagues said that they never intended to speak in the language of ultimatums, which is a positive step’, said Kemoklidze.

Georgia’s Deputy Interior Minister Vladimer Bortsvadze added that calling what was said by South Ossetian officials an ‘ultimatum’ was a journalistic ‘interpretation’. 

According to Georgian officials, the next IPRM meeting will be held sometime next week in Ergneti.

‘Nobody will dare’

On 29 August, South Ossetia demanded the checkpoint be taken down by 6:00 on Friday morning. The Georgian government did not acquiesce to the request.

The following day, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry called on Russia to comply with its international obligations and respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, as the IPRM meeting was proceeding on 30 August, the head of South Ossetia’s State Committee for Information and Press, Mariya Kotayeva, said that residents of South Ossetia feared a possible escalation of the conflict.

She added that while Georgians ‘dream’ about regaining South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a large-scale war was off the table. ‘Nobody will dare to repeat [former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s] desperate actions’, she said. 

The new checkpoint

Tsnelisi is almost entirely controlled by South Ossetian forces and is separated from the Georgian government-controlled village of Chorchana by a forested buffer zone.

On 27 August, South Ossetia’s KGB said that Georgian police were erecting a new police checkpoint near the village. They said that Georgia had cut down parts of the forest leading to Tsnelisi and erected a checkpoint on the location.

On 28 August, Georgia’s SSG reported that South Ossetian authorities were carrying out a ‘provocative’ mobilisation of armoured vehicles near Chorchana. 

Earlier that day, Zaza Driayev, the head of the South Ossetian Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee called on Georgian police to immediately leave Tsnelisi.

The following day, Zviad Zviadadze, a spokesperson for Georgia’s Ministry for Reconciliation, said that the Georgian government had every right to set up a police checkpoint and that the sentiments expressed by South Ossetian officials were unacceptable. 

‘We are setting up a police checkpoint, which is our right’, Zviadadze said. ‘Protesting this is unacceptable because this territory is controlled by us and we have every right to carry out activities that Georgia’s central government considers necessary’.

‘Incorrectly demarcated’

Tensions around the Georgian-controlled village of Chorchana, which is home to 16 families, have increased over the past year.

In March, residents of Chorchana complained that their agricultural lands were being divided by an ‘occupation line’, while also protesting the absence of a school, kindergarten, and a hospital in the village.

In January, unarmed Georgian vigilante group Power in Unity, which carries out patrols of the South Ossetian border, claimed that the ‘occupation forces of Russia’ had restricted Georgians from using the forest near Chorchana and had started preparations to erect fences there.

The SSG included the issue in February’s IPRM meeting.

In the summer of 2018, South Ossetia’s parliament formed a commission to examine the ‘incorrectly’ demarcated border in the area. They claimed a part of the Tsnelisi Gorge currently under Georgian government control belonged to South Ossetia. The area includes talc deposits.

‘Borderisation’ and detentions

The SSG’s Antadze told journalists before Thursday’s IPRM meeting that they planned to raise several other issues.

These included the ‘illegal detention’ of Georgians along the dividing line, and the ongoing demolition of houses in Eredvi (Yered), where ethnic Georgians resided before the August 2008 war.

The Georgian authorities claimed that the South Ossetian authorities planned to use Eredvi as a landfill.

Antadze sad that ‘illegal borderisation’, including the latest case near the village of Gugutiantkari, were also among the issues to be discussed.

Earlier in August, the Russian military set up several hundred metres of fences, cutting off two families of ethnic Georgians in Gugutiantkari, in Gori Municipality, from their property.

The new fence near Gugutiantkari. (Photo: Embassy of Ukraine to Georgia / Facebook)

[Read more on OC Media: New ‘borderisation’ in South Ossetia cuts off property of two Georgian families]

On Wednesday, the Geneva Discussions co-chairs released a statement after visiting the area saying that the newly erected installations in Gugutiantkari had worsened the situation for local residents. They said the installations had impeded their freedom of movement and ‘prevented them from reaching their orchards and threaten access to irrigation water’.

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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