Georgia remains strongly pro-West 10 years after war with Russia
Western partners’ lack of resolve to confront Moscow angers Georgians, but up to 75 percent still support NATO dream.
Georgia has only one highway. It cuts through the country horizontally in the middle, connecting its east to the west.
Any hostile act on E60 would pose an existential threat to the whole nation, disrupting its food supply route.
And Georgians are well aware of the potential consequences of such a scenario. It’s exactly what happened just 10 years ago.
The five-day war that broke out overnight on August 7 in 2008 between Georgia and Russia saw Russian tanks rumble through South Ossetia – a breakaway region since 1991, enter Georgia proper and camp on E60 just outside the capital, Tbilisi.
The move not only humiliated the Western-minded small nation, but temporarily broke the country in half, revealing the consequences of an attempt to move away from the Russian sphere of influence.
Following the 2008 war, the territory Georgia lost as a result of claiming independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 has slightly expanded. Currently, about 20 percent of Georgia is under occupation.
Moscow brought additional slivers of land from Georgia bordering South Ossetia under its control after the truce, put up barbed wires and border signs around it and officially recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – Georgia’s second breakaway region.
The barbed wires appeared as close as 400 metres from E60 at one point, just 65km from Tbilisi.
The de facto border split some Georgian villages in half and even goes through front gardens of some houses. Others found themselves swallowed up into Russian-controlled land overnight.
There have been instances of Georgians, who stepped over the wires to bring their cows back from the disputed land, being arrested by the Russian soldiers.
Tbilisi brands such cases as kidnappings.
During our recent visit to Georgia, we had to be escorted by armed police to approach the dividing line near the occupied village of Tsinagari to avoid such a fate.
In Karapila, another village on the edge of the occupied territory that we accessed without the armed escort, residents expressed concern for our safety.
A Georgian military officer guarding the village discouraged us from making ourselves visible to the Russian soldiers stationed across the wires, saying it would create a long-lasting problem for the residents.
“So far, there have been no incidents in this village. We want to avoid provoking the Russians. Nowadays, if a cow wanders into the occupied territory, they will let us take it back. If they see you photographing them now, they might get angry and toughen up against the whole village,” said the officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.
Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst for the South Caucasus with the Crisis Group NGO, says residents on both sides of the divide are suffering.
“[The 2008 war] turned locals into hostages of bigger politics and brought a huge change to their human destinies,” she said.
“The current situation does not contribute to the post-war reconciliation, [quite] the opposite – it only fuels conflict with [an] increasing feeling of injustice for [people] living near the dividing line.”
Vartanyan said that before 2008, South Ossetians had close links with ethnic Georgians despite having broken away from Tbilisi in 1991.
“[They also] had much better economic and cultural connections to the Georgian towns rather than Russia,” she said.
“These links gradually get destroyed with [the] younger population more often looking towards north rather than to Georgia proper.”
“Those who come to Tbilisi often tell me that they still prefer not to discuss their trips with neighbours and sometimes even family members,” she said.
“They are afraid of being blackmailed when back home, and there were cases when the de facto authorities [strongly criticised] Tbilisi trips.”
Vartanyan also confirmed that South Ossetia was not allowing Georgians to visit the region.
“Only IDPs from [the occupied] Akhalgori region can get special papers,” she said.
The Georgian government is pinning high hopes on the close interaction of ordinary South Ossetians with Georgians.
“Georgia’s policy on the return of lost territories is based on the possibility that it is impossible to achieve progress in this direction in the foreseeable future,” Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“[Tbilisi] can only try to make sure that the situation does not get worse on the legal front – to minimise the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia [another breakaway region of Georgia] by other countries.”
Nodia also said that the second component of Georgia’s conflict resolution policy was “maintaining the human contacts” of the residents of the Russian-controlled territories with Tbilisi.
Georgia offers free healthcare to South Ossetians and Abkhazians and many are lured to Tbilisi for various treatments.
The growing success of the programme raised concern in Moscow and prompted deals last year between both de facto authorities and Russia that allowed South Ossetians and Abkhazians with Russian citizenship to use the same medical services available to Russians.
People still prefer Georgian healthcare because Tbilisi is closer.
Critics of the healthcare battle say the policy could be understood to mean the Georgian government is against the breakaway regions, when in fact the conflict involves only Russia and Georgia.
The ruling Georgian Dream party – in power since 2012 – has also been criticised for seeking improved ties with Russia.
“It’s a sad fact that the government is trying to sort out relations with Russia,” Beso Qatamadze, a former Georgian soldier who took part in the 2008 war, told Al Jazeera.
“Against this background, Russia continues its annexation and occupation,” he said, calling for “taking steps in practice, not just on the level of rhetoric” against Moscow’s behaviour.
Qatamadze said the Georgian government’s “incoherent policy” confused the country’s Western partners who stood with Georgia in condemnation of Moscow.
But many Georgians have felt increasingly let down by the West in recent years.
There was an expectation among pro-Westerners that the European Union and United States would take strong steps to protect its loyal ally, rather than limit its support to rhetoric and funding.
Accelerated acceptance into NATO was hoped for; Georgia’s referendum on joining the military alliance – a clear challenge to Moscow – was seen as the provocation that led to the Russian invasion.
Opinion polls conducted in the last six months suggest that up to 75 percent of respondents would like to see Georgia join NATO.
The West remains the main guarantor of Georgia's sovereignty and naturally, the majority of the population still supports the policy of the European and transatlantic integration.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, NATO’s representative in Georgia said the country’s commitment to the alliance was clear, but it needed to meet the requirements by carrying out more reforms.
“NATO is all about action, if you ask me. We are not just encouraging Georgia to conduct reforms, but we are very concretely supporting Georgia in conducting reforms that help strengthen its defence capacity,” said Rosaria Puglisi, the head of the NATO liaison office to Georgia, denying that it was not taking action to meet Tbilisi halfway.
She pointed to the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP) – a set of 14 initiatives through which NATO countries help Georgia to prepare for membership.
“We are talking, for example, about the Joint Training and Evaluation Center in Krtsanisi – through which the Georgian military are trained to NATO standards. We are talking about the air defence initiative, which helps Georgia establish an air defence system over its territory,” said Puglisi.
“We are talking about the secure communication initiative, which supports Georgia in establishing channels of secure communication with NATO. We are talking about initiatives concerning cybersecurity, procurement legislation in the security and defence sector, and, very importantly, the strengthening of the coastguard.”
She said it was “tangible support” that saw NATO help Georgian armed forces, and other security and defence institutions, become better at protecting people and territory.
But 10 years after the war, some Georgians have started to doubt whether it was worth ignoring Russia’s threat of “serious consequences” if NATO took steps towards Georgia’s and Ukraine’s integration into the alliance.
“[In recent years] pro-Russian sentiments have somewhat increased in Georgia,” said Nodia.
“The fact that the West showed a certain amount of weakness in the 2008 war and later in Ukraine is one of the reasons behind it.
“But the West remains the main guarantor of Georgia’s sovereignty and naturally, the majority of the population still supports the policy of the European and transatlantic integration.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v