In the summer of 2008, international attention was directed at the human rights in Georgia, and violations surrounding the Russo-Georgian War. But while eyes have shifted to other zones of conflict, the disputes about the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia still entail insecurity and human rights abuses.
Ethnic struggles and disputes over independence had already lingered in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for years, when armed conflict broke out between Russia, Georgia and the Georgian breakaway regions in August 2008. All sides were accused of abusing human rights in Georgia during or after the conflict. Human Rights Watch reported that the Russian army fired on civilian vehicles in numerous cases, killing and wounding many. Russia and Georgia also allegedly both made use of cluster ammunition, inflicting further deaths upon civilians and leaving behind unstable “minefields,” according to the NGO.
The war only lasted for five days, but the withdrawal of Georgia from the breakaway regions did not end the suffering of civilians. The South Ossetian army was accused of conducting a violent “cleansing” campaign against ethnic Georgians in the aftermath of the war: destroying villages, killing civilians, torturing prisoners of war and displacing tens of thousands of Georgians. Reportedly, the Georgian population of the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75 percent.
In 2016, the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into possible war crimes, such as pillaging and attacks against civilians and peacekeepers, as well as crimes against human rights in Georgia, including forced transfer of populations and murder.
South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence has been recognized by the Russian government after the war, as well as by Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. But the regions are still generally regarded as Georgian territories currently occupied by Russia by the majority of the international community. The breakaway regions have their own governments but are dependent on support from Russia. The boundaries are guarded by Russian forces in addition to the de facto forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and both regions receive financial aid from the Russian government.
Tensions about the future of the Georgian breakaway regions remain. In a referendum earlier this year, almost 80 percent of South Ossetia’s population voted to rename the region the “State of Alania,” mirroring the name of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is part of the Russian Federation. The referendum was perceived as a provocation in Georgia since the name stresses an ethnic distinction from Georgia and suggests unity with North Ossetia-Alania, and therefore with Russia. Georgia, as well as the United States and the EU, have condemned the referendum as illegitimate.
As Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International state in their most recent reports, the tensions around South Ossetia and Abkhazia still infringe on the rights of residents living and working in the frontier area.
In the past year, Russian and South Ossetian authorities conducted an effort to fence what they consider to be a “state border.” Therefore, some local residents’ access to their land or homes was cut off, impacting their “rights to work, food and adequate standard of living,” according to Amnesty International. Russia also continues to move the border, thus increasingly creeping further into former Georgian territory. In October 2016, the New York Times reported on the plight of the residents of the border village Jariasheni. One of them does not dare to return home after his house was suddenly on the other side of the elastic boundary line. Some residents have been arrested after finding themselves on the wrong side accidentally, because of the line’s uncertainty. “[W]ho knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” one resident is cited.
Abkhazia has also increasingly tightened the control over its border: in 2016 and 2017, all but two border crossings have been closed. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu criticized these closures for impacting local residents’ livelihood and for restricting the freedom of movement of hundreds of citizens who used the crossings daily. As Voice of America reports, they were used, for instance, by ethnic Georgians to visit their schools or medical facilities. The closure also cuts through family ties and hampers some residents’ access to their property and crops, affecting human rights in Georgia.
The boundaries are not recognized as borders by Georgia and its allies, who see them merely as “administrative boundary lines” – but crossing these boundaries can have very real and serious consequences. In the past year, dozens of people were reportedly detained by Russian or regional authorities while trying to cross the boundary lines. Several of them accused the authorities of torture and ill-treatment, for example, of beatings. In May 2016, a Georgian man was killed by an Abkhazian border guard while trying to enter Abkhazia.
As Georgia strengthens its ties with the European Union and NATO, Russia continues to enhance its influence over the Georgian breakaway regions, seemingly heading for an outright annexation. A permanent, peaceful solution to the conflict and thus an end to the insecurities experienced by the local residents are not yet in sight.
– Lena Riebl