Georgia is facing a new challenge in its quest to reclaim the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: the planned introduction of hundreds of Russian border guards.
The new border guards - deployed under an agreement signed by Moscow, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali on April 30 - give Russian border guards the right to patrol the frontier dividing the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgian-controlled territory. The agreement, according to media reports, stipulates it is a temporary measure that will remain in place until Abkhazia and South Ossetia upgrade their own border guard services.
There are no exact figures about how many Russian border guards will be assigned to either region, or how long the agreement will stay in force. Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, told EurasiaNet that there are plans for around 500 Russian border guards to patrol the territory's border with the Georgian regions of Samegrelo and Svaneti. Officials in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, could not be reached from Tbilisi.
Shamba called the agreement "long-term," although he said that the exact number of Russian border guards will depend on "necessity." Abkhazia anticipates that there will be fewer guards once work to "modernize" the border is complete, he said.
After their respective wars for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, Abkhazia and South Ossetia relied on their own border guards to patrol the buffer zones, which were monitored by Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeepers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Degrees of discipline varied. Before the 2008 war, ethnic Georgians trying to cross into Abkhazia or separatist-controlled South Ossetia reported having sometimes to pay "fees" of varying amounts to enter. Guard-free entrance points - particularly into Abkhazia's ethnic Georgian district of Gali - were often frequently used instead.
A degree of informality also prevailed. For example, a senior Abkhaz border guard officer, busy expounding on the region's tourist attractions, voluntarily carried a EurasiaNet reporter's suitcase to the bridge leading into Georgian-controlled territory from Abkhazia.
But with the Russians on hand, Shamba says that Abkhazia feels safer in the face of what he and other Abkhaz officials see as the ongoing threat of attack from Georgia. "In this agreement with Russia, we see a guarantee of our security," he told EurasiaNet in a phone interview from Sukhumi, Abkhazia's seaside capital. "We believe that it is more trustworthy protection for our government and our existence."
According to Russian media reports, a sea patrol is also planned for Abkhazia, which borders the Black Sea. As part of Tbilisi's embargo against Abkhazia, Georgian ships routinely intercept vessels traveling to and from Sukhumi.
The Georgian government - along with its allies in the European Union and the United States - has strongly criticized the agreement. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists in Poland on April 30 that Moscow was attempting to "legalize" what he termed its "annexation" of Georgian territory.
While political analysts say that the introduction of Russian border guards will certainly defer Tbilisi's dream of reestablishing its authority over the two separatist regions, some suggest the move does not mean Georgia will never recover the territories.
Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus Project Director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, suggested that the Georgian government should "demonstrate goodwill" in response to the border-guard agreement and try to engage all sides in dialogue. "But in a situation where the de facto Abkhaz authorities say they will not negotiate with the current Georgian government and there is such hostility - and a lack of even diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi - the situation is not encouraging," Sheets said.
Giorgi Khutsishvili, a conflict analyst and founder of the Institute for Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, echoed Sheets' view. While the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia may not be resolved "in the near future," the Georgian government can make policy changes that will "gradually change the situation in the future," Khutsishvili said. What changes and how they would be received remain the unanswered questions, however.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor, Elizabeth Owen, added reporting to this story.