With its gently rolling hills and sun-drenched orchards, the small Georgian village of Dvani could easily be described as picturesque, were it not for a barbed-wire fence that runs through it.
Dvani, home to around 1,000 inhabitants, straddles the demarcation line that separates the breakaway region of South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia.
The village’s unfortunate location has placed it on the front line of a territorial dispute that has pitted Tbilisi against South Ossetia’s Russia-backed separatists since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 2008 — almost two decades after an armed conflict between Georgian government forces and South Ossetian rebels — Dvani was shelled and looted during the brief Russia-Georgia war over the divisive region.
And when Russia subsequently recognized South Ossetia as a sovereign state, Dvani found itself, in Moscow’s eyes, sitting on a fully fledged national border — one that Georgians say is creeping deeper into their lands.
Last month, Russian troops began unfurling barbed wire along the boundary line, effectively separating people in Dvani from their farmland, ancestral homes, and cemeteries.
“Russia should leave our territories to us. We will solve our own problems, be it with Ossetians, Armenians, or Azeris, and we will live alongside each other as we always have,” said Leila Januashvili, a resident of Dvani. “Russians should not interfere and must stop setting people against each other.”
Russian Border Patrols
After the 2008 war, South Ossetia delegated the protection of its borders to Russia on the grounds that it does not have its own border patrol.
Metal barriers went up two years later on portions of the 400-kilometer boundary line, but the project was quickly abandoned and Dvani was spared.
Tensions have been simmering, however.
When news came that a fence was being built in some neighboring villages, Januashvili and her husband, Teimuraz Kopadze, wasted no time harvesting apples from their orchard, which lies on the other side of the boundary.
Like many local residents, the family relies heavily on apples as a source of income.
They returned to inspect the boundary line last week with a heavy heart and little hope of ever setting foot in their orchard again.
To their surprise, the border guards had disappeared.
Gone, too, were the fence poles and rolls of barbed wire that had been strewn on the grass waiting to be assembled.
“Everything was removed, including the poles, which made us very happy,” Kopadze said. “They removed the pillars along one-and-a-half kilometer. Even the [poles] that were planted but not permanently fixed have been pulled out and taken away.”
Although the fence remains incomplete, much of what has already been built is still in place. Likewise, in the neighboring village of Ditsi, work on fences has also abruptly ended.
Russian authorities have remained tight-lipped about the developments, declaring only that South Ossetia was marking out its true territorial boundaries in line with maps from the Soviet-era, when the province was an autonomous region within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also dismissed Tbilisi’s claim that the boundary line was being shifted further into Georgia proper and warned of “serious consequences” if Tbilisi continued what it described as “political speculation.”
The apparent decision to halt the fencing came amid a mounting barrage of criticism from the West.
The United States, the European Union and NATO all voiced concern last week over Russian-backed efforts to seal South Ossetia off from the rest of Georgia.
The U.S. State Department said the initiative was “inconsistent with Russia’s international commitments and Georgia’s territorial integrity” and created “hardship” for local residents.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned that such activities “seriously challenge” stability and security in these regions.
All reiterated their call on Russia to rescind its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s other pro-Russian separatist region.
Whatever the reason, the departure of Russian troops, however temporary, has met with a deep sense of relief in Dvani.
Some villagers hope the incident and the international attention it has attracted will breathe new life into efforts to find a negotiated solution to the dispute.
“Nothing can ever compensate for our losses, but we started hoping again that there will be new negotiations,” said Ano Makhachashvili, a Dvani resident. “I think this could be a sign that the Russians are retreating. Hope dies last. We are not going anywhere.”
In Tbilisi, authorities remain more skeptical.
Georgia and Russia still do not have diplomatic relations, and Moscow’s recent statements on the border issue have been less than conciliatory.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili raised his concern at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, condemning what he described as “the annexation of Georgian lands by Russian troops” and accusing Russian forces of “dividing communities with new barbed wire.”
A Split Within Georgians Too
The fence has also deepened divisions within the Georgian leadership itself, with Saakashvili accusing his rival, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, of failing to visit the affected Georgian villages and of pursuing a policy of appeasement with Moscow.
But memories of the war are still fresh in Ivanishvili’s camp, too.
Reintegration Minister Paata Zakareishvili, who oversees efforts to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back into Georgia’s fold, says there is no indication that Russia is backpedaling on the border-fence issue.
Georgians, he said, must still brace for a possible escalation of the dispute.
“We should not have any illusions about improving the situation. We should not expect any positive steps in this direction from Russia,” Zakareishvili said. “If it happens, all the better. But we must be prepared so that our citizens are safe.”
Reports have since emerged that a border fence was going up in the nearby village of Adzvi.