“Empty Peace When We’re Dead”

by Mariam Berdzenishvili

The following article was first published in SpeakFreely’s Fearless For Freedom print issue, Tbilisi Georgia, April 2024.

— What good can an empty peace do an empty stomach? … What is peace for a living man? What are enemies if people are free? We’ll have enough empty peace when we’re dead.

Ilia Chavchavadze, ‘Letters of a Traveller’ (1861)

On November 6th 2023, two residents of the village Kirbali, on the border of Georgia and its occupied territories, attempted to enter their church. Tamaz Ginturi, who had lost his father in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and was himself a war veteran, had gone to the village cemetery together with Levan Dotiashvili to pay respects. According to the latter, the Russian military opened fire on them when they tried to open the locked door of the church in order to light a candle for loved ones. 

Ginturi was wounded in the chest and back and later bled to death. Dotiashvili was taken into custody and released three days later. Russians denied any wrongdoing, claiming that they fired cautionary fire first but Ginturi and Dotiashvili refused to cooperate. Ginturi was given a funeral with full military honours, attended by dignitaries including the Georgian President. Needless to say, the incident sparked political sensitivity in Georgia, with calls to end the occupation and restore territorial integrity.

In a video recorded by Ginturi amid the shootings, we can hear him screaming, referring to the church he was trying to enter, “Lomisa, my powerful dear, f**k those who locked you up,” which would later be known as his last words.

Until 2018, residents of Kirbali, Mejvriskhevi, Zerti, and Bershueti gathered annually at St. George’s Church in Lomisa on the Georgian-Russian border for religious rituals. However, in 2018, Russian forces established a checkpoint near the shrine. South Ossetian authorities warned Georgia that approaching the new border would lead to arrests. In August 2023, the occupation regime sealed the church door, highlighting the dire outcome of appeasing borderization policies.

Creeping Occupation

Since the 2008 conflict, Georgia has faced a persistent threat known as “creeping occupation,” as Russian forces extend administrative borders deeper into Georgian territory. The self-proclaimed “Republic of South Ossetia” is encroaching ever closer to vital infrastructure like Georgia’s central highway, with more land falling behind barbed wire fences marking the so-called border, manned jointly by the FSB and the South Ossetian State Security Committee (KGB). Research carried out by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) shows that villages like Greater and Lesser Khurvaleti find themselves on the opposing side of this line, while others, such as Gugutiantkari, have been absorbed into South Ossetian territory. Media reports confirm the division of villages like Zardiantkari and Roreti, with significant portions of Dvani, Ditsi, Tsitsagantkari, Jariasheni, and Adzvi also seized.

According to The Ministry of Defence, since 2008 Georgia ceded control over 151 settlements, proving once again that creeping occupation persists and is fueled by Russia’s political and military support for Ossetian separatists.

Ginturi’s tragic death was not an isolated incident; prior to him, Archil Tatunashvili and Giga Otkhozoria fell victim to Russian aggression. Tatunashvili’s unlawful arrest and subsequent death, coupled with signs of torture, underscore the ongoing human rights violations in the occupied regions. Similarly, Otkhozoria’s fatal shooting by an Abkhazian “border guard” exemplifies the grim situation. Georgia’s efforts, such as the creation of the “Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili list” to address crimes against its citizens, have largely proven ineffective. Irakli Kvaratskhelia’s case in 2019 further illustrates the lack of accountability and justice. With the list originally comprising 33 offenders, none from Russia, its efficacy has been called into question as many accused are deceased or unaccounted for. These incidents highlight the urgent need for international attention and intervention to address ongoing violations and ensure justice for victims like Tatunashvili, Otkhozoria, and Kvaratskhelia.

The 59th Geneva round was eye-opening for all as Russia raised the subjects that are constantly disputed and fundamentally unacceptable to Georgia. Russia keeps underlining the necessity of delimitation and demarcation of the border, as well as the signing of a legally binding agreement on stopping the use of force between Georgia and its occupied territories. Experts and politicians have been saying for years that the fulfilment of these two issues by Tbilisi will be equivalent to legalising the occupation, and Russia will achieve its goal of no longer being considered a party to the conflict.

Empty Peace

Creeping occupation is a daily threat to the security and stability of Georgian citizens trying to live their day-to-day lives. For the government, the problem is so grave that it requires a sensible policy to keep it from turning into a larger-scale conflict. In other words, they resort to the appeasement policy, which is the main reason Georgia has maintained stability and peace over the years.

But does this peace really mean anything or is it a justification for having friendly relations with a terrorist state? The necessity for Georgia to remain cautious is often interpreted as acquiescence to the occupation and violence, considering the fact that Russia is more powerful, and could invade anytime (leaving Georgia to simply nod its head whenever Russia decides to move the border a couple of metres on the south). What Georgia needs to realise is that every time it fails to oppose these actions, its statehood ebbs away.

Not only does silence and appeasement empower further aggression, but it also undermines deterrence and weakens the credibility of the state. Furthermore, whenever we concede border territory to the Russians, we compromise on our fundamental values, undermining Georgia’s long-term interests and damaging its reputation on the international scale. Sensible-but-submissive policies only address the symptoms of conflict rather than the underlying issues driving aggression, leading to increased instability and insecurity.

International Response and a Way Out

Following Ginturi’s killing, on November 23rd, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding further investigation and punishment for the perpetrators. This resolution provided Georgia with an opportunity, previously overlooked by the government, to impose sanctions against Russian aggression. The US delegation to the OSCE also highlighted Russia’s involvement in the conflict, urging adherence to the 2008 cease-fire agreement and withdrawal of troops from Georgian territory.

Despite the complexities of confronting a terrorist state, there exist viable long-term strategies for Georgia beyond turning a blind eye to escalating security concerns. Experts advocate for proactive measures, such as implementing a visa regime for Russian citizens, imposing targeted sanctions on occupation representatives, and expanding the “Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili list”. Additionally, Georgia should actively engage with international partners to propose effective countermeasures against Russian aggression, recognising the limitations of unilateral action. By adopting a proactive stance and leveraging international support, Georgia can assert its sovereignty and protect its citizens against mounting security threats.

In the face of creeping occupation and ongoing threats to its sovereignty, Georgia’s security stands on the resilience and courage of individuals like Ginturi, Tatunashvili, Otkhozoria, Kvaratskhelia, and many others. Their sacrifices underscore the urgency of upholding freedom and justice. Despite challenges, their bravery fuels Georgia’s march towards true freedom. It’s imperative for Georgia to not only resist aggression but also to garner international support to confront such injustices. Through collective efforts and unwavering determination of staunch and unflinching characters like Ginturi, Georgian civil society can unite and strengthen its commitment towards fostering democratic values and sustainable development.

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