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Frozen Conflicts And Disputed Borders Create Uncertainty In Russia's Shadow


You know, one thing you can say about Russia's president, Vladimir Putin - when he spots an opportunity, he grabs it. I mean, here's just a list - alleged cybermeddling in last year's U.S. presidential election; sending his military into Syria, into Crimea, into Ukraine. And now here's another story that is not so well-known. And it takes us to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and a renegade province called South Ossetia, which sits right on Russia's southern border. This Putin opportunity came in 2008 when Georgia tried to put down South Ossetia's drive for independence. Russia's military moved right.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's intensifying and becoming more brutal. The war between Russia and Georgia spills out of South Ossetia.

GREENE: And nearly a decade later, Russia is still right there, on territory that the rest of the world considers part of Georgia. Reporter Stephanie Joyce has been getting an up close look at the Russian playbook.

Hi, Stephanie.


GREENE: So where exactly are you right now?

JOYCE: Yeah. So I am standing near the village of Odzisi on what has become Georgia's de facto northern border. And where I am, I'm surrounded on three sides by Russian-controlled territory. There's a Russian checkpoint about 50 feet in front of me, and there's a car in the checkpoint right now. The border guards are searching it. Behind me is a Georgian police checkpoint that I had to pass through to get here today. You know, it very much looks like a border. The Russian border guards have been taking photos of me.

GREENE: That's disconcerting.

JOYCE: But according to - it's, I guess, part of their job.

But according to Georgia and most of the rest of the world, including the United States, I am currently not standing on a border. Of course, if I were to take just a few steps forward, it's very likely that I would be arrested by the Russian border guards for illegally crossing into South Ossetia.

GREENE: OK. So maybe don't do that. But, I mean, explain to me why you're there, why this place is important and what exactly we can learn here.

JOYCE: Yeah. I mean, so despite being basically in the middle of nowhere, this is actually quite an illustrative spot, geopolitically speaking. This is one of a number of places along Russia's border, including Ukraine, where there are frozen conflicts that create a lot of uncertainty.

And here, Russia has really created its own set of facts on the ground. And those facts have a big impact on the daily lives of the people who live in this region, obviously. And I want to introduce you to some of those people in a place that I visited last week.

GREENE: OK. Let's go with you there.

JOYCE: The village is called Khurvaleti. It's also surrounded on all three sides by Russian-controlled territory. And it's one of a handful of villages that are literally divided in two by the boundary. I visited with the European Union Monitoring Mission, which runs unarmed patrols of the boundary line. Polish monitor Tomasz Szablowski is leading this particular patrol.

TOMASZ SZABLOWSKI: OK. So now we will go. Josef, can you report that we are going on foot patrol, please? OK?


JOYCE: An escort of stray dogs follow us up a dirt road through the village. Then suddenly we're there. The boundary line is literally just a spool of concertina wire across what one assumes was originally a road through this village.

Frankly, it looks innocuous. There's a house just on the other side of the fencing and no one in sight except a herd of cows. But when I walk forward to get a better look, Szablowski calls me back. The fence is a barrier, he explains. But it may not be exactly where the border lies.

When I just stepped forward about 5 feet, it's possible that I crossed into South Ossetia.

SZABLOWSKI: In some places, yeah, it is possible.

JOYCE: It's possible because the boundary is effectively wherever Russia says it is. Russia claims it's following old Soviet military maps that define the border of South Ossetia. But those maps are conveniently unpublished. Regardless, Russia has started installing fences and patrolling the border with dogs.

SZABLOWSKI: If you have, like, so-called border in the middle of the village in the middle of the old charts - so it creates a huge problem for local community and society.

JOYCE: That quickly becomes clear as we continue walking. Just up the hill, a farmer on the other side of the fence, the side controlled by Russia, is turning over the soil in his small orchard. My interpreter shouts, might he have a minute to chat?


JOYCE: He shouts back without getting any closer.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said I can't talk. I'm afraid that it might cause me some problems.

JOYCE: He adds that if we come over to his side of the fence, he still won't give us an interview, but he can offer us some homemade wine. Unfortunately for us, crossing to his side of the fence would likely result in our arrest by Russian border guards.

And the newly erected fences haven't just divided neighbors. They're also a real problem for people's livelihoods. In the Georgian-controlled part of Khurvaleti, school is just letting out. Music teacher Zizi Kurmashvili sees my microphone and walks over.

ZIZI KURMASHVILI: (Through interpreter) I want you to let others know what is the situation here. This is a village near the border line, and people are very poor here.

JOYCE: The village, she explains, used to be prosperous. People had huge orchards, and there was a thriving market. Now, she says, Russia has stolen their land and their water, and people can't make any money. It's a common story. In recent years, many farmers in the area have reported going to bed one night thinking their fields and orchards were in Georgia only to wake up and discover fencing suggesting otherwise.

Kurmashvili calls over her son, 16-year-old Giorgi Muzashvili, who, like many young Georgians with their sights set on the West, has been studying English.

GIORGI MUZASHVILI: But my English is not - I am only upper intermediate.

JOYCE: Upper intermediate, he says. Unlike his mother, Muzashvili barely remembers a time before there were Russian border guards stationed in bunkers on the hillside behind his school. But he does remember the war.

GIORGI: I remember that I was thinking so many about refugees. And I put my bag and I put boots and my clothes because I thought that, in two or three days maybe, I will be in refugee camp.

JOYCE: Muzashvili's family was able to stay. But when you live in a village divided by a frozen conflict, uncertainty about the future becomes a way of life.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce.


GREENE: And we should tell you Stephanie is reporting in Georgia thanks to NPR's Above the Fray Fellowship, which is sponsored by the John Alexander Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Joyce
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