Thirteen years after the Russia-Georgia war, the ECHR has ruled that the Russian Federation is responsible for human rights abuses and violations of fundamental norms of international law during and after the 2008 August war.
In August 2008, Russia started a military aggression against Georgia in violation of fundamental principles of the international law and occupied territories of a sovereign nation. Thirteen years after the Russia-Georgia war, Russia continues its occupation and the de-facto annexation of two Georgian territories – Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. The Russian Federation still refuses to comply with the commitments taken under the 12 August ceasefire agreement, does not withdraw its armed forces illegally deployed near Georgia’s internationally recognised borders and continues gross violations of human rights on both sides of the occupation line.
On 21 January 2021, 13 years after the war, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Russian Federation is responsible for human rights abuses and violations of fundamental norms of international law during the 2008 August war and in the aftermath of Russian occupation of the Georgian territories. In particular, the ECHR ruled that the Russian Federation is responsible for such grievous crimes and gross human rights violations such as “killing of civilians and military personnel and the abuse of their right to life, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, ethnic cleansing and torching Georgian villages, looting and destruction, violation of the rights of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees to return to their homes and the violation of the right to liberty and security, the freedom of movement, the right to protection of private and family life as well as right to protection of property.
Since 2008, after the recognition of the independence of both Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Russia seeks to obtain legitimacy for its actions and set the ground for the annexation of the Georgian territories. To this end, the Kremlin has unsuccessfully sought to expand the recognition policy of the occupied territories and involve different countries in these efforts.
On 25 August 2020, the Russian Federation recognised the independence of Georgia’s occupied territories, Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (the so-called South Ossetia). Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu also recognised the independence of these territories. However, Vanuatu, in 2013, and Tuvalu, later in 2014, withdrew their recognitions and declared the occupied territories as part of Georgia. Currently, of the nearly 195 countries of the world, only five recognises independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Syria was the fifth country which recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On 29 May 2018, the Kremlin-allied Bashar Assad’s regime recognised Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia as independent countries.
Georgia pursues a two-pronged policy vis-à-vis the occupied territories which includes a non-recognition and an engagement policy. The non-recognition policy implies the enhancement and the deepening of diplomatic ties with different nations across the world and the establishment economic relations and application of all peaceful interstate mechanisms, including stronger lobbying, to make sure that no other country recognises the independence of the occupied territories. It can be safely argued that the results of the non-recognition policy are the aforementioned decisions of Tuvalu and Vanuatu to withdraw their recognition. Since Georgia established diplomatic and consular relations with both countries, they refused to recognise the occupied territories as independent.
Taukelina Finikaso, Tuvalu’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, signs the decision to retract the recognition of the occupied territories. Tbilisi, 2014 (Source: Voice of America).
In addition, the US adopting the Consolidated Appropriation Act on 5 May 2017, which says that none of the funds appropriated by the act may be made available for assistance for the central government of a country that has recognised the independence of or has established diplomatic relations with the occupied Georgian territories, is also considered to be one of the tangible results of the non-recognition policy.
According to government’s engagement strategy: “The Strategy is part of Georgia’s overarching determination to achieve the full deoccupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, to reverse the process of annexation of these territories by the Russian Federation and to peacefully reintegrate these territories and their populations into Georgia’s constitutional ambit.”
Occupation in Numbers
Not even the pandemic could act as an obstacle to stop the illegal actions of the Russian occupation forces in Georgia. As the entire world is involved in fighting against COVID-19 to save lives, Russia continues illegal actions on Georgia’s occupied territories. Since 2008, the Russian occupation forces and Moscow-backed regimes have been illegally detaining dozens of Georgian nationals annually and seizing many hectares of Georgian land.
According to the State Security Service of Georgia, the Russian occupation forces have been unlawfully restricting the freedom of hundreds of Georgian nationals every year beginning from 2008. On the 13th anniversary of the war, the total number of illegally detained persons is over 3,250.
A statement of the State Security Service of Georgia reads: “Since 2008, there has not been a single year without numerous illegal detentions. For instance, in the direction of the occupied Tskhinvali, up to 80 people were detained throughout 2009, 80 people were also detained in 2010, the number of detained people reached 140 in 2011, which has been one of the highest figures in the statistics of the illegal detentions, whilst 110 people were illegally detained in 2012. In 2019 and 2020, the number of illegally detained people reached 86 and 64, respectively.
Since summer last year, one of the most notorious facts of detention has been that of Zaza Gakheladze near the occupation line in the Kaspi municipality. The court hearing of Zaza Gakheladze, who was wounded during the detention, resumed at the beginning of 2021. In February 2021, the de-facto Supreme Court sentenced Mr Gakheladze to 12.5 years in prison. In five months after this ruling, the de-facto President Anatoli Bibilov pardoned Zaza Gakheladze and released him from the de-facto prison. Lasha Khetereli, who was detained by the Russian occupation forces on 30 July 2020, also had to spend nearly one year in illegal captivity.
The illegal detentions of Georgian nationals have been continuing incessantly for 13 years since the August war. In the last six months, it was confirmed that six Georgian nationals were detained under charges of border trespassing.
At the beginning of 2021, Ramaz Begheluri, a resident of Gori municipality’s Gugutiantkari village, was illegally detained and released only after two months. The State Security Service of Georgia clarifies that the immediate release of illegally detained Georgian nationals happens owing to all existing mechanisms, including the EU’s so called “hotline.”
In February 2021, another Georgian national, Erik Drulev, was illegally detained at the Roki Tunnel section of the Georgia-Russia state border. The occupation forces released him in a few days.
Malkhaz Doluashvili, an inhabitant of Gori municipality’s Zerti village, was also detained in February 2021 near the village of Bershueti close to the occupation line. Mr Doluashvili left the so-called Tskhinvali prison in a few days.
Two locals from Gori municipality’s Akhalubani village, who were also detained under charges of border trespassing, were released in a few hours. A man from Gori municipality’s Kirbali village, who was detained in June 2021 under the charges of border trespassing, also spent few years in the captivity of the occupation forces.
The situation was different vis-à-vis Abkhazia. According to the report of the Public Defender of Georgia, the occupation regime more frequently opted for administrative offences and imposed relevant fines. However, in the last period the de-facto government changed its policy and started to launch criminal cases.
Currently, two Georgian nationals still remain in the captivity of the occupation regime. Gennady Bestaev was removed from his own home on 26 November 2019 and sentenced to three years in prison whilst Irakli Bebua was transferred to a Sokhumi detention cell and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Georgian and Ossetian delegations have face-to-face discussions on the issue of releasing illegally detained Georgian nationals as a part of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism in the village of Ergneti which commenced in March 2021 after a five-month-long pause. Since 2009, a working group has been holding periodic gatherings on so-called neutral territory. A total of 101 meetings have been held so far.
The 13th year since the August war is distinguished with numerous facts associated with the occupation. This includes the tragedy of four persons who drowned in the Enguri River when they were attempting to leave the occupied Gali and reach Georgian government-controlled territory by swimming across the river.
The story of Data Vanishvili, left behind the dividing line who died this year at the age of 88, is also linked to the occupation regime. Mr Vanishvili’s house ended up in the occupied territory in 2011 and this period marks the beginning of illegal borderisation process in the Georgian villages.
It has been ten years since the non-stop instalment of barbed wires and metal fences as well as digging trenches started in the Georgian-controlled territory.
According to the data of the State Security Service, the total length of the occupation line around the occupied Tskhinvali region is currently 353 kilometres. The Russian occupation forces have installed a 53-kilometre-long artificial barrier around the villages of the Dusheti, Gori, Kareli, Kaspi, Khashuri, Oni and Sachkhere municipalities. The length of the occupation line in the occupied Abkhazia is nearly 145 kilometres whilst the total length of the illegally installed fences, barbed wire, trenches and ditches, put in place by the Russian occupation forces, is over 49 kilometres. The illegal process of the so-called borderisation takes place in the territory adjacent to the Pichori, Otobaia, Nabakevi, Tagiloni, Dikhazguri, Saberio and Lekukhona villages of the occupied Gali district. The total length of the occupation line on Georgian territory is over 500 kilometres whilst man-made barriers, fences, barbed wires and trenches have been put in place across more than 100 kilometres.
The so-called borderisation process is also continuing during the pandemic. According to the information of the State Security Service, so-called border sign-posts were installed in the Kareli municipality’s Takhtisdziri village in 2020 and wooden pillars were also erected at the same location in April 2021. Similar constructions started to pop up in a few days near the village of Ghogheti in the same municipality. Later, the service members of the so-called border unit moved special equipment to other villages of the Kareli municipality and dug anti-fire trenches along the green border sign-posts at the perimeter of the villages of Tseronisi and Knolevi.
Apart from illegal detentions and borderisation, several other incidents also took place near the occupation line. As stated by the locals, these incidents are instigated in the Georgian villages by the representatives of the occupation regime.
On top of the Russian occupation’s long-term devastating humanitarian, political and economic consequences, Georgia also has to face real and daily process of the Russian aggression. In addition to the fact that numerous civilians and their families face serious dangers because of illegal detentions, the so-called creeping occupation does not stop and every year it advances closer to the Tbilisi-Senaki-Leselidze major highway.