Continuing its game of redrawing borders, Russia has grabbed a 1.5-kilometer-long slice of a critical oil export pipeline in Georgia for the separatist territory of South Ossetia, leaving Tbilisi, once again, calling for the international community to come to the rescue.
Russian troops, who, since the 2008 war with Georgia, have been drawing lines as they find fit between Georgian-controlled territory and breakaway South Ossetia, on July 10 marked off another section of land, leaving a small section of a key, Azerbaijan-Georgia oil pipeline out of Tbilisi’s reach. “With this illegal action[,] a certain portion of the pipeline next to the village of Orchosani fell within the occupied territory,” Georgia’s interior ministry said in a statement.
After Russia recognized South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia in 2008, Russian troops guarding the tiny land’s claim to sovereignty and, by extension, its allegiance to Moscow, have been putting up fences and demarcation signage in the area. Tbilisi has protested against the continued “creeping annexation” as barbed-wire or metal-bar fences have cut through the properties of Georgian villagers, often separating houses from their orchards across what South Ossetia and Russia claim is an international border.
But the appeals have been to little avail.
This latest takeover, however, now has gobbled up a segment of a BP-operated pipeline and is inching toward Georgia’s main East-West highway. Stretching from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea shore to Georgia’s Black Sea coast, the Western Route Export pipeline has a capacity of 100,000 barrels of oil per year. It is second in size to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which Russia tried to blow up ahead of the 2008 war, according to US intelligence.
Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze said that if BP has trouble accessing the pipeline and doing its work, “an alternative project” would be put in place for resolving the problem.
British Petroleum Georgia told EurasiaNet.org that it plans to reroute the fenced-in section of the pipeline as part of routine maintenance. With or without border banners in place, “the situation is not new and we have effectively had it since 2008,” said spokesperson Tamila Chantladze. She said BP, so far, has faced no obstacles to operating the pipeline.
Azerbaijan, relatively flirtatious with Moscow of late, appears to have remained silent on the topic. One Azerbaijani news outlet regurgitated a claim from Georgian Energy Minister Kaladze that the pipeline could be rerouted, but Azerbaijani officials have not responded.
Russia, for its part, also has not commented, though South Ossetia’s de-facto representative at talks with Georgia, Khokh Gagloity, scoffed at talk of an alternative route for the pipeline, and, via one regional mouthpiece, claimed that if BP encountered questions, it could turn to South Ossetia, which will do “and is doing everything for [the pipeline’s] complete functioning.”
Georgia itself has few options to fight back, other than to drum up the international community’s help or try to negotiate a solution through two mechanisms for talks with Russia. Georgian envoy Zurab Abashidze, who described the move as a “dangerous provocation,” said he would raise the matter on July 16 when he next meets with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Karasin.
The opposition blames Tbilisi’s soft-touch policies toward Moscow for the pipeline grab, but Georgian officials show no sign of changing tact. They have attempted to emphasize to domestic audiences that the pipeline move is nothing new.
“Twenty percent of our country is occupied,” noted Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, Georgian news outlets reported. “It is just as bad if the Russians move the border by two kilometers or by 20 meters, but it is just a continuation of the same line of policy that our country has faced until now.”
She said that the road to restoring territorial integrity goes through Georgia’s integration in the Euro-Atlantic system, and vowed that one day the Russians themselves will pull out the border signs and place them back at the Soviet-era Russian-Georgian border.
Another attempt at optimism came from Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, who said he does not expect trouble for the pipeline as it goes “deep under the earth,” though observed that rerouting the structure “would cost money.”