On January 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a Presidential Decree on the topic of demarcation of the state border between Russia and its neighboring states. The decree focuses on establishing borders between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, reigniting frustration from the Georgian side on Russia’s continued involvement in supporting de-facto states that fall within Georgia’s internationally-recognized borders.
In the decree, Russia named Mikhail Petrakov as the new Special Envoy for Demarcation and Delimitation of Borders. Petrakov also serves as the head of a Russian delegation responsible for engaging in multilateral talks with countries of the Caspian region. The post was previously manned by Igor Bratchikov, who entered the role under a Presidential Decree that took effect on August 25, 2012.
The January 2021 decree states that Petrakov “will be tasked with delimiting and demarcating the state border of the Russian Federation with Abkhazia, Georgia, and South Ossetia.” The announcement of Petrakov’s appointment immediately incited a response from the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Georgia affirmed that any demarcation of state borders will not be considered until Russia de-occupies Georgian territory and reverses its recognition of the ‘independence’ of the occupied territories that was announced in 2008.
On January 4, Nikoloz Samkharadze, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, echoed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement that Georgia will not establish any borders until Georgian authorities regain control over Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Samkharadze also stated that “international law is on our side.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic that emerged in the South Caucasus region in early 2020, the lines of communication used by Russia and Georgia to discuss the issues of territorial occupation were interrupted. The Geneva International Discussions, launched in October 2008, are the only platform for the parties of the Russo-Georgia war to discuss humanitarian and security issues.
The 51st session of the Geneva International Discussions was originally scheduled to take place on March 31 and April 1, 2020. In light of the global health crisis, the talks were initially postponed to October 6-7, 2020. However, the Russian delegation backed out the discussions, citing concerns over face-to-face meetings during a pandemic. The 51st session ultimately took place on December 10-11, 2020, marking the first and only round of discussions in 2020.
With a full year elapsing between the 50th and 51st sessions of the discussions, the consequences of a lack of dialogue could be clearly observed.
Historically, freedom of movement between Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia has been affected by sporadic border closures and frequent changes in policy. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, movement has faced further restrictions.
On March 11, 2020, Abkhaz officials announced that beginning on March 14, the Enguri Bridge Crossing Point, the only link between Georgia and Abkhazia, would be closed indefinitely to curb the spread of COVID-19. After more than two months, Abkhaz authorities opened the Enguri Bridge crossing for one day on May 26 with the purpose of allowing residents of Abkhazia who traveled to the Tbilisi-controlled areas for medical treatment to return.
By June 21, Abkhaz authorities announced another temporary opening of the Enguri Bridge. The opening was planned for June 22-24 to serve as a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to allow Abkhaz residents to return from Georgia proper. Following this three-day window, the only linkage between Abkhazia and territory controlled by Tbilisi was once again severed. Two additional ‘humanitarian corridors’ were opened from August 5-9 and December 3-10. The December opening faced widespread criticism from Abkhaz residents. Residents were only permitted to exit Abkhazia, and residents seeking to visit relatives in Georgia proper or seek medical care were unsure if they would be able to return to their homes after exiting Abkhazia.
The situation in South Ossetia, Georgia’s other region occupied by Russian-backed forces, was even more dire. In early 2020 amidst the initial spread of the coronavirus, South Ossetia closed its borders with both Georgia and Russia. Initially, the only connection between South Ossetia and the outside world was through freight transportation between North and South Ossetia. Despite the attempts to isolate itself, South Ossetia’s hospitals quickly became overwhelmed, and authorities were forced to call upon Russia to establish a mobile military field hospital. By December, the Russian Armed Forces closed the temporary hospital facility and withdrew from Tskhinvali.
Limitations on the freedom of movement between Georgia and its occupied territories as well as the repeated postponing of dialogues between Tbilisi and occupying forces led to heightened tensions on border issues in 2020. Russia’s announcement of a new Special Envoy for border demarcation does not positively contribute to the situation, both at the diplomatic level and with the on-the-ground situation.
It has been recommended that Georgia could promote further engagement with the occupied regions by offering additional medical assistance during the pandemic, but it is uncertain how this would be perceived by occupying authorities. In December 2020, the Georgian government delivered 10,000 doses of surplus flu vaccines to Abkhazia for use by high risk groups. However, earlier this month, as wildfires raged across western Georgia and Abkhazia, Georgian authorities volunteered to provide support, including the use of helicopters, to extinguish the fires, but Abkhaz authorities rejected the offer.