Putin has not forgotten about the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which wants to decide in July whether to join Russia. People here still remember when the Russian army invaded while the West looked on. And there is growing worry that this could soon happen again.
ERGNETI — Every time Russian troops exercise in South Ossetia, people in this Georgian border village hear the artillery. The aftershock reverberations are already causing the stones in Lia Khlachidze’s house to crumble off the wall. She lives in Ergneti, only about 100 meters as the crow flies from the demarcation line.
The 69-year-old is standing in her cellar, leafing through a book until she finds a particular page. On it is the footprint of a Russian soldier. “In 2008, Russia invaded here and burned and devastated everything,” Lia says. “They didn’t want us to come back.”
But Lia did just that, rebuilding her house on the same spot a year after the war ended. She picked up what was left of her previous life and used it to put together a makeshift museum in her new basement. Photos of the war hang on the walls, and a Georgian flag and a burned-out toy car are in a display case.
When Lia thinks about the Ukraine war, she thinks about what many in Georgia are currently wondering: What does Putin plan to do afterwards? For her, it’s clear: “If the Russians come again, I’ll be the first to be hit again.”
The Kremlin doesn't forget
In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and within five days captured the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, killing 850 people, according to the EU’s Commission of Inquiry. Both territories declared their independence following the war, which was recognized by Russia. Russian “peacekeepers” have been securing the two territories ever since.
On Friday May 13, the separatist government in South Ossetia announced a referendum on annexation to Russia in July. It is unclear whether the latter will actually take place, given tight coffers in Moscow, which would then have to finance the region even more than it currently does. But the signal behind the announcement is clear: Putin has not forgotten Georgia.
A threat directed at the West – and at Tbilisi. In early March, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Georgian government applied for EU membership, and on May 18 Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili traveled to Brussels to discuss his country’s partnership with the defense alliance with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
South Ossetia's President Anatoly Bibilov (center) attends Victory Day celebrations alongside Russia's Ambassador to South Ossetia Marat Kulakhmetov (on his left) in Tskhinval.
Resistance in Tbilisi
In Georgia, solidarity with Ukraine is strong. The blue and yellow flag seems to be more present in Tbilisi than the Georgian flag. On the wall of the house where Shota Dighmelashvili (36) and Mariam Geguchadze (23) are inviting people, text is written in large letters: “Russians, go back to your disgusting country.”
The two activists sit at the table of a big old apartment and write with colorful felt-tip pens on protest posters. Their Shame Movement has been in existence since 2019. Today they are fully committed to supporting Ukraine.
In Georgia, solidarity with Ukraine is strong.
On the second day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili had still rejected sanctions against Moscow. “That would do more harm to our country and our people,” he said in justification. Only due to public pressure, organized in part by Shota and Mariam, did he have to relent. Thousands of Georgians demonstrated for solidarity with Kiev.
Shota regrets that it took forcing the government to side with Ukraine. Only if Georgia stood together with the world in opposing Russia could Putin be deterred, he says. “After his disaster in Ukraine, Putin should know that he wouldn’t stand a chance in Georgia either.”
Calling Moscow's bluff
But Tbilisi is pursuing a more cautious policy on the matter. To date, Georgia has joined international financial sanctions against Putin’s regime, but bilateral trade continues.
Russia was Georgia’s second-largest trading partner last year. In late February, a plane carrying volunteers was stopped as they tried to travel to Ukraine to fight. Tbilisi is not supplying weapons.
“We have to be careful with what we do,” says Nikoloz Samkharadze, the chairman of Georgia's Foreign Affairs Committee. “Our policy is that we don’t want to give Putin a reason to invade.”
For Shota, this is a pretext. The real reason, he says, is the ruling party Georgian Dream’s closeness to Russia. According to a report by Transparency International, its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili held stakes in at least ten Russian companies until 2019. Today, there is said to be one more. “Putin doesn’t need a cause,” Shota says, holding up a poster with the Russian President’s effigy.
If Russia wanted to, it could divide the country in two with very little effort.
Back in Ergneti, beside the border with South Ossetia, Lia would rather not call his bluff. “I’m glad the government is being cautious about Russia.” If Putin waged war on Georgia on the same scale as he is now waging war on Ukraine, she says, “we won’t exist anymore.”
Armoured vehicles of Russian peace-keeping forces have been patrolling South Ossetia and Abkhazia ever since they became independent, like here in Ergneti.
In fact, Russia could easily hurt the country militarily. The capitol is just 50 kilometers from the easternmost tip of South Ossetia. Between Tbilisi and the major city of Gori, the occupied territory extends to within a few hundred meters of the important E60 highway that connects the east of the country with the Black Sea coast.
“If Russia wanted to, it could divide the country in two with very little effort,” Batu Kutelia says. He was the country’s deputy defense minister in 2008. “The Georgian army could do little about it.”
Lia has lost everything before. Before the war, Ergneti was a vibrant fruit trading hub. Traders came to the town by the thousands. She maintained a small guesthouse, renting out three of her rooms for the equivalent of 70 cents a night each. Even then, the said, there was no help from the international community.
“We were left alone,” she says, and begins to tap her index finger vigorously on the table. “Angela Merkel,” Lia exclaims, “did nothing for us.” The fact that it was the German chancellor who spoke out against Georgia’s accession at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest is still on her mind. “If Russia attacks again,” she asks, “who says you will help us this time?”
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