A protest rally, organized by some media outlets and civil society organizations, was held in Tbilisi on July 18. The protesters were criticizing government’s policies towards Russia and accusing the authorities of not doing enough to prevent Russia’s “creeping occupation.” Tabula media outlet and Rustavi 2 TV, as well as think-tank Georgia’s Reforms Associates, rights and watchdog groups Georgian Democracy Initiative, Media Development Fund, Tolerance and Diversity Institute were among the organizers of the rally. The protests were sparked by Russia’s actions in the breakaway region of South Ossetia where the border demarcation posts were again moved further into Georgia’s territory. Although reports of Russian troops moving the demarcation line more inside Georgia proper have come regularly, this time it has caught the international attention as the new de facto borderline takes over parts of the Baku – Supsa oil pipeline.
Criticism for the government
Protesters were criticizing government’s actions by saying that instead of countering Russia’s soft and hard power against Georgia, the government’s policies were on the contrary contributing to the increase of Moscow’s influence in the country. Protesters were also calling for scrapping a bilateral format of dialogue between Georgia and Russia, which are carried out since late 2012 by Georgian PM’s special envoy for Russia, Zurab Abashidze, and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Grigory Karasin. The demand has long been pushed for by the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, which says that this format creates “false impression” of normalization of bilateral relations. Another parliamentary opposition party, Free Democrats, which was part of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition till November, 2014, has also called for abandoning this format of dialogue, arguing that it has “exhausted itself”. Former Public Defender, Giorgi Tugushi, who now chairs Georgian Democracy Initiative NGO told protesters: “For more than two years, under the current government, we have been watching destruction of what was built in previous year – destruction of our European future.”
Baku – Supsa pipeline question
Signposts marking “South Ossetian border” were placed on July 10 close to the villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani in the short distance from Georgia’s main east-west highway and in the area where a mile-long portion of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa oil pipeline runs. The new markers also left 1,605-meter portion of the BP-operated Baku Supsa oil pipeline within the territory outside Tbilisi’s control. The 830km pipeline, which is also known as Western Route Export Pipeline (WREP), runs from Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea terminal of Supsa. Tamila Chantladze, a spokesperson of BP Georgia claims that “WREP continues to operate as normal - safely and to the highest international standards”. Georgian Energy Minister, Kakha Kaladze, said that the 1,605-meter section of WREP, which now falls on the territory outside Tbilisi’s control, can be rerouted if there is any problem to its operation.
Khokh Gagloity, who represents South Ossetia in regular meetings of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism in Ergneti, said that “Worries’ of some officials in Tbilisi over operation of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, running on the territory of the Republic of South Ossetia, seem to be farfetched”. “The section of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, which runs on the South Ossetian territory, operates in a normal working mode from the time when it was laid. If there are any questions over providing service to the pipeline, BP can independently address us, and there is no doubt that everything will be done and is being done for the full functioning of the pipeline,” Gagloity said.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili claimed that the incident “will not weaken importance of Georgia’s strategic transit route”. However, Georgian officials are also worried about the threat to security of the country. Georgia’s Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli said that placing of demarcation signposts along the breakaway South Ossetian administrative boundary line is part of Russia’s provocations through which it is “testing our patience”. The Georgian Foreign Ministry has condemned “this illegal action” and called on the international community to “assess appropriately this move, which is directed against peace and security.” Russia, meanwhile, has denounced the claims as “propaganda.”
Russia’s “annexation” of a small strip of land in Georgia has met with condemnation from the EU and the US. The EU, which deployed monitors in Georgia after the 2008 war, said Russia's action is “provocative”. It urged Russia to “avoid … any action that is detrimental to ongoing efforts to stabilise the situation” and called on Georgia to show “restraint”. The US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, said the land-grab is designed to “humiliate” Georgia’s pro-Western government. Lithuania said it has a “negative impact on the security situation in the whole region”. Its foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, added: “‘green men' in Ukraine, now 'green signs' in Georgia - Russia's aggressive disrespect of sovereignty must stop”. Head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia(EUMM), Lithuanian diplomat Kęstutis Jankauskas, also added that “in terms of perceptions these signs for the local population mark the areas where they can or where they cannot go, so for them the boundaries have moved and that’s why it’s so emotional”. A meeting of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) has been scheduled for July 20 to address recent developments. IPRM represents meetings with EUMM facilitation between Georgian and South Ossetian representatives, as well as representatives of the Russian troops on the ground.
After the August, 2008 war and following recognition of South Ossetia’s “independence” by Moscow, Russian forces in the breakaway region started building demarcation line mostly along southwestern, south and southeastern portions of the administrative border. The line mostly follows the Soviet-old administrative borders of former Autonomous District of South Ossetia. However, the border line has been moved a little bit further into Georgia’s territory every once in a while.