TAMARASHENI, Georgia—The farmers awoke to find their wheat ripening inside another country.
South Ossetian troops and their Russian allies had worked through the night, sinking new border-marking poles across fields outside a hamlet called Tamarasheni in the golden hills of central Georgia. The Russians granted the local farmers 72 hours for an emergency harvest then ordered them to leave—forever. Piling out of a military truck the next day, the soldiers inspected their night’s handiwork: expanding Moscow’s perimeter of influence in the Caucasus.
Story Continued Below
A small knot of Georgian border guards, overmatched as usual, watched the proceedings bleakly from 50 yards away. The Russians ignored them. It was a kabuki theater of power and powerlessness.
“They took 10 hectares this time,” said farmer Levan Kipshidze, tallying the latest chunk of Georgia—about 25 acres—swallowed last August along a shifting line of demarcation between his country and the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia. “This can happen anywhere. It can happen anytime. No one can do anything to stop it.”
Over the late summer and fall, I made several visits to this new boundary that is, by political design, one of the least secure frontiers in the world. It’s been a strange time to document how imaginary lines and the structures that mark them alter lives as well as landscapes. Hardened borders are back in geopolitical fashion with a zeal unseen since the height of the Cold War. In the U.S. presidential race, Donald Trump has built his campaign on an Iron Age technology—a Great Wall of China—to deal with 21st century immigration problems along the Rio Grande. A fearful Europe, meanwhile, is busy erecting barricades to check historic flows of refugees and Islamic terrorists.
In the Caucasus, the Kremlin—a seasoned master of aggressive boundaries—is doing what some other politicians have only promised. In the process it has exposed the continuing weakness of a former republic that it steamrolled in 2008 in a week-long war over South Ossetia. And though the legal status of the tiny “Republic of South Ossetia” is unsettled—only Russia and few of its clients recognize the separatist region’s independence—a de-facto frontier already zigzags among the rumpled hills of Georgia, veering between tragedy and farce. Russian and Ossetian troops creep out after dark to move the unofficial line—usually only a few yards, but once by more than a mile—deeper into Georgia. Georgian cows and sheep get stranded on the Ossetian side. So do people. One elderly Georgian couple, refusing to evacuate their farmhouse, have been fenced inside South Ossetia. (The Ossetians cut the castaways’ electricity; Georgian neighbors have run an extension cord under the razor wire.) Over the past seven years of frozen war, Georgia says more than 800 of its citizens have been detained by Ossetian forces for “illegal entry” to their lost fields, pastures and wood lots.
Georgia calls this nibbling away of its territory by Russia a “creeping occupation.” Russia says it’s simply heeding the wishes of its backwater vassal, one of two former Georgian regions now effectively absorbed by Moscow. (The other is Abkhazia.) And the outside world, represented by a small and rather lonely European Union peace monitoring team, labels the land grabs “borderization.”
“Similar problems occur in places like Lebanon, Israel and Bosnia,” said John Durnin, a European Union monitor who watched from his white SUV as the Russians marched their boundary posts into the fields around Tamarasheni. “What’s unique here is that nobody knows where a line should go, even if it were recognized. The uncertainty creates hardship. It’s a denial of civil rights, of freedom of movement.”
The erratic crack between Georgia and South Ossetia isn’t easy to spot at first.
Clues begin to appear about 50 miles north of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The rural roads simply cease to function as roads. Ribbons of asphalt devolve into parking lots for rusty tractors, kids’ soccer fields or drying yards for crops of beans. This means that somewhere ahead makeshift fences or concrete barriers block the way. From here, you must get out and walk. Old front lines snake vaguely through abandoned farms that have reverted to bush. Some of the trees hide security cameras installed by the Russians. And among the foliage, old torched houses gape rooflessly at the sky. Most of the unofficial boundary remains unfenced. The advancing Russian border posts often jut hundreds of yards apart. An air of stagnation hangs over villages nearby. South Ossetians usually occupy the heights and control water sources. Georgians cling to valleys. It’s a dead-end landscape. It doesn’t pay to wander off the roads.
“You might get kidnapped,” said Zakaria Mamagulashvili, an apple farmer from the village of Dvani. “I myself have taken a forced holiday twice.”
Mamagulashvili was referring to his capture by patrolling South Ossetian and Russian troops. Most recently, last March, he was pruning his orchard when two South Ossetian soldiers walked 60 yards into Georgia and marched the farmer across the murky new frontier at rifle point. He spent seven days in a ramshackle police cell. He heard another Georgian captive being beaten. Mamagulashvili paid a 5,000-ruble fine to be released. (About $90 dollars at the time.) This was a hardship because he’s getting poorer all the time: The new border has ingested half of Mamagulashvili’s harvest, or about 300 boxes of apples a year.
“Come back in five years,” he said bitterly, handing me one of his ripe Jonathans. “You’ll find all of us living on the South Ossetian side.”
A few miles away, Davit and Valia Vanishvili already are.
After refusing to budge from the path of an expanding border fence, the stubborn Georgian couple was sealed inside South Ossetia by Russian troops. The Vanishvilis lost access to their wheat fields. Today, they survive on charity passed through the razor wire by neighbors living in the amputated village of Khurvaleti. In exchange, the old couple places traditional Georgian offerings—boiled eggs, flowers—on the family graves of neighbors now cut off from the village cemetery.
We believe the Russians are using a 1984 Soviet general staff map to draw the new border,” Durnin, the EU monitor, told me. “But we really don’t know.”
“We didn’t want to leave our house to strangers,” explained Valia, a twig-limbed woman of 75. “Why did they do this to us? We never had fences here before. We always got along with the Ossetians.”
This is largely true.
Each side in the conflict still promotes its own narrative of grievance. Georgians blame Russia’s divide-and-conquer policies during the Soviet era for colonizing swathes of Georgian farmland with Ossetian loyalists from the North Caucasus. The Ossetians, in turn, complain that they were discriminated against under Tbilisi’s rule. Yet the two ethnic groups have lived in harmony for generations. Until 2008, mixed marriages were common. And Ossetian and Georgian villages were interspersed. That’s precisely why the borderline’s artificiality is so demoralizing.
“We believe the Russians are using a 1984 Soviet general staff map to draw the new border,” Durnin, the EU monitor, told me. “But we really don’t know.” Russia doesn’t allow foreign observers into South Ossetia. Durnin wakes up, like everyone else, to proliferating green signs that read, in English, Russian and Georgian, “ATTENTION: State Border. Passage is Forbidden.” He describes his job in a Beckettian koan: “Ninety-nine percent of the world doesn’t accept the new boundary’s existence. But we have to know where it is in order not to cross it.”
Whatever ghostly map is used—if any—it’s working.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the flamboyant Georgian president who took on the Russians over South Ossetia, is long gone. Georgia’s new government, led by a flailing coalition called Georgian Dream, is noticeably warmer to Moscow. Its credibility is mauled with each new report of a Georgian shepherd “kidnapped” along a phantom borderline with teeth.
“We feel abandoned,” said Lia Mekarishvili, 52, an elementary school teacher in the village of Dvani, whose classes, once numbering dozens of students, have shrunk to four. Mekarishvili started to cry but stopped herself. “We are tired. People are ready to give up. We are alone. Russia never gets tired. It will win because it waits.”
A mile or less down a village road that was no longer really a road, the new frontier bent like a tensed muscle through a dead zone of brushy gardens and neglected orchards. It already had shifted within the heart of fruit grower Merab Mekavishvili.
“On Easter, I used to go down and shake hands across the fence with my old Ossetian friends,” Mekavishvili, 53, said. “The Russians don’t like this. So my friends don’t do it anymore.” The burly, white-haired farmer said his Ossetian friends’ children didn’t remember the good old days of ethnic coexistence. The younger Ossetians didn’t know Georgians at all, he said. He said they hated him.
Paul Salopek is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. In 2013, he began a seven-year walk tracing one of the early human migrations out of Africa.