An Octagenarion with a weary countenance and blurring eyes comes to the South-Ossetian & Georgian border marked by barbed fences, almost daily to greet the visitors and narrate his ordeal. With a cap over his head and a sense of longing in his heart of reuniting with his extended family residing on the other side of the boundary, he hopes to return to a Georgia devoid of the fencing one day. Turned into somewhat of a local legend now, his plight is a painful reminder for the fading memory of the world of the atrocities committed on the ethnic people on both sides. Who is to be blamed for the same, he has no idea but for eighty years he had been the citizen of Georgia and now, he has now been turned into a Russian Citizen.
An Eerie calm hung at the landscape of Georgia where Russians have set up barbed fences, even a slight altercation can tip the balance. Alongside the boundary of Georgia, one can see a bleak billboard showing a crying child with a black date of 08-07-2008, the date that still instils a wave of panic among the local Georgian population. The deserted roads, burnt-out villages, broken houses still is a flashback of the horrors that took place a decade ago.
The five-day conflict in August of 2008 marked the killing of 170 Georgian servicemen, 14 policemen, and 228 civilians. Sixty-seven Russian servicemen were also killed and 283 were wounded, and 365 South Ossetian servicemen and civilians (combined) were killed as per the EU Fact-finding report about the conflict. The conflict centred around South-Ossetia and Abkhazia region, two provinces in Georgia supported by Russia. What happened that day? Further dwelling into the issue reveals an interplay of two narratives –the western v/s the Russian. Georgia was agitated by Russia's strengthening ties and support to the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia within Georgia while Moscow did not celebrate the idea of Georgia joining NATO and EU perceiving it to be a trap of installation of a puppet Government in Georgia as per the International Defence Analyst, D.P.K Pillay. Understanding the intricacies involved in this conflict, it becomes imperative to get hold of the fact that the seeds of upheaval were sown in it the past.
During the 19th century, Georgia was a part of Russia along with Abkhazia and Ossetia. During the Russian Revolution of 1918, Georgia became an independent Republic of Georgia with South-Ossetia as its part. From 1918-1921, Georgia accused Ossetians of supporting the Bolsheviks as South-Ossetia was historically and culturally more inclined towards Russia. The Red Army invasion led Georgia to become the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia and South-Ossetia was given an provincial status within Georgia. A period of peaceful co-existence between South-Ossetians and Georgians continued until the disintegration of Soviet-Union in the 1990's which made Georgia independent. The subsequent coming to power of the Georgian staunch Nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia stoked separatist sentiment amongst the South-Ossetians and series of tensions resulted in first South-Ossetian and Georgian war in 1991. Interesting leap in the trajectory of events came when Russia took a special interest in the independence of South-Ossetia and helped to negotiate a ceasefire (Sochi Agreement) between South-Ossetia and Georgia that left the region largely independent with most parts still under Georgian control. Meanwhile, following the civil war in Georgia, Abkhazia also became independent. The status quo changed with the coming of President Mikail Saakashvili to power in 2004, vowing to reintegrate South-Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgia which by then had come into the Russian sphere of influence. However, the air got cleared when ninety-nine per cent of South-Ossetians voted in favour of independence from Georgia in a referendum held in 2004. The successive years were marked by a series of provocations and tensions leading to frequent skirmishes and military build-ups on both sides till 2008.
Inter-play of different narratives: Western v/s Russian divide
Georgians accuse Ossetians of their ethnic cleansing during the 2008 crisis. An accusation of shooting down an unmanned drone over Abkhazia region by the Russians set the ground for the famous Russo-Georgian war of 2008. It was corroborated by the UN investigation which clarified the drone being struck by a Russian fighter jet. Denying the claims, Russians moved their troops to the Abkhazia region to what they described as a plan of attack by the Georgians. Georgia responded by sending its troop to South-Ossetia to which Russia launched an unprecedented series of airstrikes and recurrent bombing in South-Ossetia crippling Georgia's military effectiveness, occupying nearly twenty per cent of Georgia's territory and displacing around three hundred thousand ethnic Georgians as per the official data in Georgia's Archive. Refugee Nyra ( living in a refugee accommodation provided by Georgian Government) remembers each minute of the day vividly when she had to flee with the little she could pick in a short time to escape the recurrent bombing by the enemy Russia that destroyed her beautiful village.
Upon the intervention of EU and US Officials, peace was restored in the region at the behest of the six-point diplomatic agreement signed by both Russia and Georgia. The plan was announced by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Russia withdrew partially from regions in Georgia as part of the ceasefire agreement but deployed its soldiers at the check post on the borders of the disputed region of South-Ossetia and Abkhazia. Later, on 26 Aug 2008 Medvedev signed an order recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and installed governments there. This Move of Russia was condemned by the U.S considering it to be a direct attack on the territorial integrity of Georgia. The de-facto border between Georgia and South-Ossetia is recognized by Russia and only those countries having closer ties with Russia like Venezuela.
To put things differently, there is yet another narrative which regards Georgia as the perpetrator of violence by bombarding the capital of South-Ossetia (Tskhinvali) with raining rockets, killing the local population while the World was busy in Beijing Olympics in August of 2008. As per the local population of South-Ossetia, Georgian soldiers put the civilian population into captivity during the conflict. Silovika, an eyewitness of the account highlighted the barbarianism of the Georgian soldiers when they attacked and blew off her husband's head. Although the Ossetian militia fought them with a tough hand it was Russia that came to the rescue of the Ossetians. Thus, believing the counter-attack by the Russian side as an intervention instead of invasion. Russian President justified the counter-attacks on the pretext of them being in the legal capacity of fulfilling the peace-keeping operations agreed by International agreements.
Somewhere around 800 lives were lost in this five-day conflict as per the EU Fact-Finding Mission. Both sides committed numerous violations of the Laws of War as per the Human Rights Watch. As per the EU Fact-Finding Mission Report, both sides had engaged in provocative actions in the months before the conflict but it was the Georgian government that had initiated the 2008 Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict. However, the attack was seen as the culmination of years of increasing tensions, provocations, and incidents.
Approximately 300,000 Georgians are still in exile devoid of security of their respective lives. The devastating war has pushed many people to struggle for bare minimum subsistence The shepherds that mistakenly or unknowingly cross the border are detained by the Russian Soldiers and released after 48 hours only after a fine of 2000 Roubles. For the shepherd community, such hefty amount burns their minimal savings. "My husband, the most hardworking man in the village has been detained by the Russian soldiers because he crossed the border mistakenly", said Vilna, a resident of Tbilisi. These detentions are a huge issue for the people living alongside the de-facto border. The threat of Russian incursions loom large on the Georgian population with the only hope of evacuation of Russian soldiers from their land one day, keeps them surviving.
A potential threat to peace
The Hague based International Court of Justice is still investigating the war-related crimes committed by Russians, Georgians, and South-Ossetians. Russia has been continuously developing its bases in South-Ossetia and any activity on the other side of the fence is seen with an eagle's eye. Moscow's growing deployment of the missiles and radar in the region is met with criticism by Tbilisi. Meanwhile, Georgia is trying to engage with the partners on board like Central-Asia, NATO to counter-balance the growing influence of Russia. It has even asked for more comprehensive military support from the EU members. People in Georgia have been seen protesting against Russian activities in the region frequently. South-Ossetia and Abkhazia officially belong to Georgia as agreed Internationally. Russia has been accused of illegal occupation of the neighbouring territory by many countries and is on the spree to enhance its control over the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. A Spell of a lull at this juncture is seen as the precursor of the biggest storm lying ahead due to uncapped activities of growing Russia.