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Breakaway Georgian region shows the perils of ceding land to Moscow

Russian soldiers detain a man at a checkpoint in the Georgian city of Gori, near South Ossetia, during the 2008 war
Russian soldiers detain a man at a checkpoint in the Georgian city of Gori, near South Ossetia, during the 2008 war - Reuters

On the hillside above the northern Georgian village of Kirbali stands an Orthodox chapel. Its doors were sealed in 2008, when separatists seized control of the breakaway region of South Ossetia with the help of the Russian army and established an unmarked line of occupation that split the church from the village.

But on Nov 6, having previously broadcast himself  on Facebook breaking into the chapel, Tamaz Ginturi approached it for a second time with fellow villager Levan Dotiashvili, 33.

The South Ossetian border guard, which includes locals and Russian FSB officers, were lying in wait. The 58-year-old was shot dead as he tried to flee and Mr Dotiashvili was abducted to Tshkinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, for interrogation. He was released three days later.

Three months on, the separatist government has not apprehended or prosecuted anyone in connection with the killing of Mr Ginturi. “We do not have any hope that there will be justice,” Givi Ginturi, his 60-year-old cousin, told The Telegraph. The family believe that the “brave, traditional, patriotic” veteran was targeted specifically because he fought against the 2008 invasion.

Givi Ginturi, whose cousin Tamaz Ginturi was shot dead by the South Ossetian border guard
Givi Ginturi, whose cousin Tamaz Ginturi was shot dead by the South Ossetian border guard - Tim Sigsworth

Since then, the Georgian security service estimates that more than 1,500 Georgians have been detained by separatist border guards for what are termed “illegal border crossings”. A post-mortem conducted on one, Archil Tatunashvili, found that he suffered 100 separate torture wounds during an interrogation in February 2018 which ended in his death. South Ossetia maintains that he died when he fell down a flight of stairs in a failed escape attempt.

As the West grows increasingly hesitant about how long it can support Ukraine’s defence, Georgia stands as an example of what happens when the world makes peace with the Russian occupation of its neighbours’ sovereign territory.

The menace of abduction is merely one way among many in which the shadow of the Russian bear has loomed over Georgia in the decade and a half since the 2008 war, which also saw separatists in the western province of Abkhazia seize control in alliance with the Russian army.

In Abkhazia, Russia is building a naval base for its Black Sea Fleet at Ochamchire, a deep-water port just 20 miles from Georgian-controlled land. Its primary purpose is to get the fleet out of the range of Ukrainian missiles and sea drones which have harassed it mercilessly in waters and ports closer to the frontline.

In South Ossetia, there is also a major Russian army base at Tshkinvali, the regional capital that is just 90 minutes’ drive from Tbilisi. Two miles to its south is the Georgian-held village of Ergneti, which was once an outlying settlement of Tskhinvali but is now separated from it by checkpoints and a border along the Liakvhi, a river that skirts its north-western edge.

Tamaz Ginturi's grave in the northern Georgian village of Kirbali. The separatist government has not apprehended anyone in connection with the killing
Tamaz Ginturi's grave in the northern Georgian village of Kirbali. The separatist government has not apprehended anyone in connection with the killing - Tim Sigsworth

Ergneti’s residents live in fear of another Russian invasion. The number of families in the village has fallen from 150 before the war to just 30 amid a dearth of job opportunities. When The Telegraph visited in early February, heavy snow had cut it off from electricity for three days.

Lavan and Maia Bidzinashvili, both 45, have sent their sons Luka, 21, and Dito, 17, to Gori, the largest nearby city, for a chance at building a better life. “It is a hard life here,” Mr Bidzinashvili explained. “We are very afraid of the Russians. We do have the police here but they do not have any power. They could invade at any moment.”

Gocha Mazmashvili, 57, is a former teacher who tends a small plot of land in the village, which is lined by apple, peach and pear orchards. Like the Bidzinashvilis, his daughter Gvanca, 26, has moved away. “My biggest fear is being abducted,” he said. “We don’t go down to the river anymore because if we do then the Russians will be there in five minutes.”

Entrenched Russian military

Yet this entrenched Russian military presence on what remains internationally recognised as Georgian land has been met with a muted response from its government.

Since winning power from the pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) in 2012, the ruling Georgian Dream party has overseen a pivot towards Moscow. The opposition says this has been orchestrated by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s billionaire founder, who it also alleges is a Russian agent, which he denies.

What is undisputed is that Georgia has offered little support to Ukraine, formerly its close ally, in its defence against Vladimir Putin’s invasion. There has also been noted backsliding in corruption and cronyism and a slowing of progress towards membership of Nato and the European Union.

Brussels did bestow EU candidacy status on Georgia in November, but it came with a string of conditions for reform and has been widely interpreted as an attempt to coax Tbilisi back towards a more pro-Western position. “It’s a geopolitical decision by the European Union, it’s not merit-based,” says Petre Tsiskarishvili, the UNM’s secretary-general. “If they let Georgia go, they lose the whole of the south Caucasus.”

Joseph Stalin renaissance

One of the most peculiar examples of growing pro-Russian sentiment in the country is a renaissance in the cult of Joseph Stalin. Giorgi Kandelaki, director of the Sovlab think tank, which researches Georgia’s Soviet history, said 12 new statues of the infamous dictator have been erected in his home country over the past decade. Ironically enough, one Stalin statue in the southern village of Zikilia replaced a giant EU flag when it was erected with the backing of the Georgian Dream-ran local municipality in 2020.

“Why does Georgia have a government like this now?” asks Shota Utiashvili, senior fellow at Tbilisi’s Rondeli Foundation. “Because of the war we lost in 2008. The government says that it will pretty much do anything not to annoy Russia and it has turned the fear of renewed war into its biggest electoral asset. The instinct of self-preservation is the most important one.”

In that sense, Georgia offers an example of the risks of ceding occupied territory in exchange for peace, as well as freezing a war and accepting the enemy’s de facto control of your land. Ukraine and the West face a similar choice, since these are the principal alternatives to the maintenance and expansion of Western support for Kyiv.

West’s failure to punish Putin

In Georgia, many believe that the West’s failure to punish Putin after 2008 directly enabled him to strike Crimea, the Donbas and then Ukraine. “When you appease aggression, you get more of it and that’s exactly what we’ve seen and recent history proves it,” said Tina Bokuchava, the UNM’s parliamentary leader. “If we can draw any lessons from 2008, it’s that.”

Giorgi Vashadze, leader of the New Georgia opposition party, warns that Ukraine should remember that Russia has never withdrawn its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite promising to as part of the France-mediated ceasefire which ended the war in 2008.

“Agreement with Russia is worth nothing more than the price of the paper on which it is written,” he said. “If somebody thinks that there is a chance of a deal, Russians will consider the deal as the weakness of the West and there will be another wave of aggression in five or 10 years. Either we stop Russia right now, or the next will be Poland, the Baltic States.”

A decade and a half on from the 2008 invasion, it is clear that peace with Russia has not ended Georgia’s war. The separatists remain firmly in place, abducting and killing civilians. In Kirbali, 93-year-old Amirar Papitashvili remembers when the villagers could visit the church where Tamaz Ginturi died as and when they pleased. “The war has changed a lot,” he said.