While pro-Russian separatists in occupied Georgian territory are taking advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak to press on with illegal borderisation, the population of these areas puts hopes in the success of Tbilisi in fighting the pandemic.
Georgia, a country with an ancient culture, was a Soviet republic but now wants to join NATO and the EU. A five-day war with Russia in August 2008 deprived Georgia of 20% of its territory – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are de facto under Russian control.
Late last week Georgian authorities said Russian occupying forces have continued “illegal borderisation” near the village of Takhtisdziri, along the dividing line between Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia and Georgia proper, by installing border signs, Civil.ge reported.
The international community was quick to condemn the move, and the EU’s Ambassador to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, said it was “completely unacceptable.”
“For Russia, coronavirus is serving as a smokescreen for further ‘borderisation’,” wrote Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius.
Dennis Sammut, the director of LINKS Europe, a foundation based in The Hague promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts in Europe’s neighbourhood, indicated that the population of Georgia’s occupied territories was very sensitive to news from Tbilisi.
Abkhazians and Ossetians “follow news and TV coverage, and social media. So how the Georgian government, and the Georgian people, behave during the pandemic matters also in the context of the unresolved conflicts,” Sammut told EURACTIV.
The Caucasian country is being lauded as a success story in the global fight against the pandemic, with wide-ranging measures including lock-down of major cities, early travel restrictions, and mandatory quarantine zones at border crossings for returning citizens.
With the first case appearing on 26 February, Georgia has only 402 confirmed cases of coronavirus and four deaths as of 20 April.
“The long-term solution of the conflicts depends on whether Abkhaz and Ossetians can feel they can live comfortably with Georgians in a common state,” said Sammut, adding “there may be developments from this pandemic that can bring that possibility closer to reality.”
“For this to happen, the Georgians themselves must also do the effort.”
Georgian reconciliation minister Ketevan Tsikhelashvili said last month that despite the fact that “under the occupation and without direct control it is not easy to implement effective measures,” Tbilisi stood “ready to help our citizens.”
The breakaway territory of Abkhazia reported three coronavirus cases as of 17 April and is preparing to ease lockdown measures as of 21 April in some regions, according to Russian RIA news agency.
One Abkhazian woman was treated for the virus in Tbilisi-controlled territory in late March, Georgian Agenda.ge reported.
South Ossetia, which has so far not reported any COVID-19 cases, has completely closed borders with Georgia after the coronavirus first appeared in the country.
“It is astonishing that in the middle of this global emergency, Russia, and its proxies in South Ossetia, have continued with this activity, which inevitably stirs considerable passion on the Georgian side and concerns among the international community,” said Sammut.
“If the Georgian authorities are able to sustain” their exemplary handling of the epidemic, keeping numbers down both in terms of cases and deaths, “they would considerably improve their image and standing in the region,” Sammut added.
“People in Abkhazia and South Ossetia watch what is going on in Tbilisi and the rest of Georgia very carefully.”
[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]