The struggle between Abkhazia and Georgia, as observed from NATO-supported scientists

An international team of scientists, under the aegis of NATO, is carrying out research focused on geohazards affecting the strategic Enguri Hydropower facility, near the de facto border between the disputed territory of Abkhazia and the Republic of Georgia. This research effort offers to the NATO-supported scientists also a unique chance to observe and document the effects of this never-ending conflict. An inextricable network of international and national political and economic interests continues to produce devastating effects on local populations living on both sides.

The present-day situation in the area is rooted in historical claims of independence. In the Soviet era, although Abkhazia was an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, it actually belonged to the territory of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Back then, local residents repeatedly demonstrated for secession from Georgia and inclusion into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in April 1957, April 1967, and May and September 1978. After the dissolution of the USSR, separatist forces made of Abkhazians, Armenians and Russians living in Abkhazia started the War of Abkhazia in August 1992 (which lasted 13 months) against Georgian forces and troops made of Georgians living in Abkhazia. The separatists were officially supported by North Caucasian and Cossack forces, whereas support from Russian forces is still a matter of uncertainty. Human-right violations and atrocities were reported on both sides by the UN Secretary General in October 1993. Between 13,000 and 20,000 Georgians and 3000 Abkhaz were killed, and at least 250,000 Georgians were forced into internal displacement or were turned into refugees.

In April-May 1998, hundreds of Abkhaz militants entered the villages of the Gali District, still populated by Georgians. This led to hundreds of casualties from both sides and another 20,000 Georgian refugees. In September 2001, around 500 Georgian and Chechen soldiers entered the Kodori Valley in Abkhazia, under Georgian control, heading for the auto-proclaimed capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, but were pushed back by Abkhaz and Russian peacekeepers.

On August 2008, the Abkhaz army, with support from Russian forces, launched an operation to eradicate the Georgian troops still present in the Kodori Valley, who were eventually forced to leave this last remaining outpost. Immediately afterwards, the Russian Federation officially recognized both Abkhazia, as well as the other disputed territory of South Ossetia, as independent states. In reaction, the Georgian government cut all diplomatic relations with Russia and left the Commonwealth of Independent States. Another 1900 inhabitants of the Kodori Valley moved to Georgia as refugees.

During the same August, 2008, Russian troops coming from Abkhazia occupied the important city of Zugdidi located in Georgia, 7 km away from the border, from which they ran raids on military bases located deeper within Georgia, as far as Senaki, 37 km away. At the same time, Russian troops occupied the important harbour of Poti, along the Georgian Black Sea coast. On August 16, 2008, Georgia’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs declared that Russian troops and separatists had occupied 13 villages in Georgia, had advanced the border of Abkhazia eastward as far as Enguri River, and had put the Enguri Hydropower Plant under their control. After a ceasefire agreement, Russian troops withdrew west of Enguri River, which still marks most of the de facto present-day border. At present, the Abkhazian territory is a self-proclaimed state, recognized only by the governments of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru, whereas Tuvalu and Vanuatu renounced their recognition in 2014.

Another, major geopolitical-economic issue that has resulted from the displacement of the border as far as the Enguri River, is related to the Enguri Hydropower facility (EHF). This represents the major source of energy supply to the Republic of Georgia and the sole energy supply to Abkhazia. The EHF comprises the Enguri Dam, which is the sixth tallest dam in the world, and the 19-km-long Enguri artificial water reservoir, both located in Georgian territory. On the other hand, most of the water tunnels and the plants for electricity power production are located into Abkhazia. Any problem to this major energy power facility would bring about relevant societal and economic problems to both countries and might further destabilize the region, leaving millions of residents and hundreds of infrastructures, such as hospitals and military bases, without energy supply. Major threats could come from terrorist attacks, from which proactive defence is already in act but might be improved; further hazards might stem from natural processes like earthquakes, floods and landslides. The EHF, in fact, is located at the foot of the Caucasus mountain belt, a region affected by a number of geological hazards. Some of these can lead to sudden disasters, like earthquakes, whereas other, subtler sources of hazard and risk can develop gradually and unnoticed, such as the constant infilling of the bottom of the reservoir due to the water transport of sediments eroded away from the mountains. Moreover, in March 2017 the plant was closed for some weeks as consequence of significant water leakage from a 15-km-long diversion tunnel, as was declared by Levan Mebonia, the dam’s general director, during an interview with EurasiaNet.

Power Supply of Georgia. In red the Enguri Hydropower facility (Source: Georgian State Electrosystem)

Considering the above discussed scenario, NATO funded a Science for Peace and Security Program of research focused on the analyses of the geological hazards that pose a threat to the Enguri area. Prof. Alessandro Tibaldi, from the University of Milan Bicocca (Italy), coordinates the international research team composed of scientists from Italy, the USA, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, who have been working in the area since 2015. During such period, the scientists came into contact with the ongoing problems that the area is facing, due to the continuous tug-of-war among Abkhazia, Russia and Georgia.

In the last years, there has been some attempts by the Georgian government to improve relations with Abkhazia. For instance, in 2015 Georgian authorities stated they would provide free medical treatment for people living in Abkhazia in the best Georgian hospitals (http://www.mfa.gov.ge/Occupied-Territories.aspx). Anyway, in March 2016, the Abkhazia government reduced the number of border-crossing sites by closing the checkpoints of Shamgona-Tagiloni (Taglan) and of Pakhulani-Lekukhona (Alakumkhara). In 2017, the closure also of the border crossing of Khurcha-Nabakevi and of Orsantia-Otobaia has also been announced, triggering protests from the local Georgian population. At present, the only checkpoints that are still open, are on the Enguri bridge, not far away from the EHF power plant, and at the village of Aberkit. Reactions came also from international bodies like the UE, which condemned this decision (https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/21406/statement-latestdevelopments-along-administrative-boundary-line-georgias-breakaway-region_en), from the United Nations (https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/note-correspondents/2017-02-27/note-correspondents-response-questions), as well as from the U.S. State Department (https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/03/268239.htm).

In March 2017, elections were held in Abkhazia, but NATO allies do not consider the election as legitimate, nor do they recognise the Abkhazia region of Georgia as an independent state. James Appathurai, NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, also stated that the NATO Alliance reiterates its full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders. Georgia’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Mikheil Janelidze, declared that during the same month, Russia sent to Abkhazia a set of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems.

In May 2017, Russia’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, paid an official State visit to Sukhumi, where he inaugurated the Russian embassy. This represented the umpteenth attempt at officialising the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, and a sort of declaration that Russia does not care about the Western ban against Abkhazia separatism, nor does it care about the ban against Russian support.

All the above has deeply impacted the lives of the people living in Abkhazia and in Georgia. They are losing a sense of safety and social stability, and are undergoing a major economic crisis. Besides the thousands of people still waiting for a house after being pushed away from the disputed territory, the situation is getting worse, because there are thousands of people that need to cross the border every day. People living in Abkhazia need to enter Georgia for medical assistance, and to take part in social events such as weddings, funerals, and meetings among the relatives separated by the imposed boundary line. Also hundreds of children are directly affected by this situation, as they cannot cross the previous border checkpoints to reach their schools and are now forced to travel for as long as 50 km to reach the main crossing border at Enguri bridge. Moreover, people from Georgia used to be able to cross the several checkpoints to sell their products in Abkhazia; on the other hand, residents living in Abkhazia headed for Zugdidi, in Georgia, to buy fundamental goods. A paradigmatic example of market disruption caused by border closures is represented by Nabakevi, a border village situated in Abkhazia, whose 1400 inhabitants used to derive their income from the sale of agricultural products in Georgia, and who are facing tremendous crisis now, after the Khurcha-Nabakevi border checkpoint has been closed.

In the midst of the show of force between Abkhazia and Georgia, Russia has been increasing its economic role in both territories. For example, an open-air mine, where gypsum is being extracted, located on the Georgian mountain slope on the side of the Enguri reservoir, has been acquired by a Russian company. As the mine is located in proximity of an active landslide, the residents of the areas at the foot of the Enguri dam are becoming increasingly worried about the role of surface extraction operations in accelerating landslide motion. In May 2016, a delegation from Jvary town, lying downslope of the 272-m-high dam, asked for a meeting with NATO scientists, to better understand the geological hazards that might affect the Enguri reservoir. The scientists explained that their research would still require at least one year to gather a wealth of data that may enable them to quantitatively assess natural hazards in the Enguri area, including seismic ones. It is worth noting that the very same landslide was studied in 2015 by a Russian consultancy firm, which concluded, in its report, that landslide hazard is quite limited.

On the other hand, Abkhazia is fully supported by investments from Russia: between 2009 and 2013, Russian investments amounted to 11 billion Rubles (about 175 million Euros) (http://www.ecfr.eu/article/essay_abkhazia_russias_tight_embrace) and a similar amount has just been promised to Abkhaz politicians by Alexander Tkachev, a special representative of the President of the Russian Federation, during his first official visit to Abkhazia (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elena-ulansky/050512-special-representa_b_1494975.html).

Our several field missions to the area allowed us to observe an increase in the presence of young Russians (possibly military in plain clothes) driving around the Georgian region near the border with Abkhazia; we have also noticed that Russian tourists are starting to spend money in hotels and restaurants in the region. This, along with the fact that a Russian company has been extracting gypsum in the area and Russian consultants have conducted geohazard assessment activities in Georgian territory, are all signs of an expanding Russian economic influence within this region of Georgia. On the contrary, entering Abkhazia for tourism purposes, for carrying out consultancies or doing research is much more difficult and, lately, even impossible; for instance, our team of NATO-supported geologists and geophysicists has been able to assess the security of the Enguri Hydropower plant in areas located in Georgia. However, we were clearly told by our Georgian colleagues, that we would have serious difficulties trying to enter Abkhazia to study the geological features in the area hosting the remaining infrastructures of the Enguri plant.


AUTHORS

Alessandro Tibaldi. Ph.D. in Earth Sciences, Director of several NATO projects under the Science for Peace and Security Program. Full Professor of Structural Geology and Rector-Delegate of International Affairs with the USA at the University of Milan Bicocca (Italy), Coordinator for Internationalisation of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Ad-hoc Graduate Faculty at Michigan Technological University (USA). Chairperson Committee of National Representatives of International Lithosphere Program, Author of 3 scientific books and more than 130 academic articles, member of the Editorial Board of Frontier in Earth Sciences, and of Journal Global and Planetary Change.

Federico Pasquaré Mariotto. Associate Professor at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Sciences of Insubria University, Varese (Italy), where he teaches Environmental Hazard Communication, Science Communication and Volcanic Processes. Author of more than 50 academic articles, most of which published in International, peer review-based Journals, he is President of the Association “GeoSocial – Science & Media”, dedicated to Geoscience Communication.