Florian Mühlfried — “Seeing for a State: Policing the Border between Georgia and the Russian Federation”

Dartlo, Tusheti region, at the Northern border of Georgia.

by Florian Mühlfried

Border studies are somewhat obsessed with issues of fluidity and mobility. This may be the reason why many post-Soviet borders, which have hardened after the collapse of the Soviet Union remain largely understudied (for an important exception, see Reeves 2014). The consolidation of these borders has not always been driven by militaristic claims or state security concerns, but has also been enacted “from below”. In his study of the Turkish-Georgian border, Mathijs Pelkmans (2006) has shown how the Laz people, a population divided by Soviet borders, emphatically embraced the opportunity to reunite with their kinfolk once the border was opened in the wake of the “collapse” of the Soviet Union, only to realize that decades of spatial separation had lead to cultural and social alienation between the two groups. When such experiences of alienation became overwhelming, Pelkmans argues, the Laz on both sides of the borders tried to keep their cross-border neighbors away, thus reinforcing the border by generating cultural and social barriers by transforming taken-for-granted practices of hospitality into thinly-veiled expressions of animosity.

The border between Georgia and the Russian Federation in the Caucasian mountains is another such example, albeit with a different twist. While in the case of the Turkish-Georgian border the locals took an interest in tightening the border as a means of keeping distance from those on the other side, most people living on the Georgian-Russian border had no such interest. A case in point are the Tushetians, a subgroup of the Georgians who speak a dialect of the Georgian language and historically reside in a remote mountainous area bordering Chechnya and Dagestan within the contemporary borders of the Russian Federation. Presently consisting of about 15,000 inhabitants, many Tushetians live in the Georgian capital Tbilisi or abroad as labor migrants. Many still engage in a traditional sheep breeding economy, making use of summer pastures in the Caucasian highlands and winter pastures in the lowlands. These winter pastures are situated on the border with Azerbaijan, but formerly also included lands on the other side of the border in Dagestan. In order to support these traditional economic forms, Tushetians continue to engage in trade across a fluid northern border.

However, when the Soviet Union began to dissolve, they began patrol this border, dressing in Soviet uniforms provided with Georgian state emblems and eventually becoming officially sanctioned as the first official border guards of the Georgian state. How did this come about? The following sketch of the history of the policing of the border between Northeast Georgia and the Russian Federation is meant to illustrate the captivating effect of putting on a uniform and acting in the name of the state. 


Mutual raids have been frequent events for villagers in the alpine regions of the Caucasus, as testified by the numerous defence towers and castles that provided at least temporary shelter for those attacked during such incursions. The attackers were often neighbours, located in adjacent villages, but belonged to different ethnic groups. One such example considers a mountainous region stretching along the northeast range separating the North from the South Caucasus – and the Russian Federation from the republic of Georgia. On the southern side, this region is inhabited by Tushetians; while the residents of the northern side belong to one of the many ethnic groups of Dagestan and are predominantly Muslim. Despite nominal differences in religious affiliation, Tushetians and their neighbours to the north share many cultural practices as well as customary law.

Under the Soviet Union, both sides and their respective populations belonged to the same state. And although it is said that the chopped-off hands of enemies displayed on Tushetian house walls as trophies were not infrequent sights well into the 20th century, at least in the last decades of the Soviet Union, the practice of raiding had practically come to an end. When the Soviet state started to break apart around 1990, the practice of raiding returned. The population most affected were the Tushetians, because most of them resided in the lowlands for much of the year, due to their traditional economic practice of transhumance (a form of mobile pastoralism based on a seasonal movement of livestock). Another decisive factors was a Soviet resettlement program in the 1950s that declared that remote regions in Georgia such as Tusheti had no viable economic prospects (neperspektivnye) and forced the inhabitants to resettle in more “promising” regions for economic development (Pallot 1990: 657–660, Jähnig 1983: 38, 52). By contrast, their northern neighbours in Dagestan, called “Leks” by the Tushetians, lived in the region year long. Tushetians, in turn, blamed the “Leks” for breaking into their houses and stealing valuables, as well as for cattle theft. According to Tushetian contemporary witnesses the raids increased during the following winter of 1991, requiring action to be taken.

Tushetian men began to patrol the border, yet could not entirely control it, due to a lack of manpower and the roughness of the terrain. In order to address this problem, Tushetian representatives got in touch with the Georgian state ministry of defence. The latter was only gradually re-establishing itself after the civil war of 1991/92, during which criminal gangs had taken control over large portions of the military and police forces. Besides, the security, or even the very existence of the Georgian state was threatened by violent conflicts with the Russian Federation, which took place in the secessionist, self-proclaimed republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia during this period. Within this context, any initiative to control the border was welcomed by the Georgian state authorities. Consequently, the Tushetian brigades got officially sanctioned as the first border guards of post-Soviet Georgia by the Georgian ministry of defence. Their first uniforms still largely stemmed from the Soviet period, but they received some official looking badges and better equipment from the Georgian capital Tbilisi – and, more importantly, the authorisation to represent a state.

In addition to policing the border, however, the Tushetians took another action to improve the situation: the resumption of micro-diplomatic ties with their northern neighbours. For this purpose, the head of the Tushetian council (sabch’o), the local political representative body that derived from its Soviet predecessor and maintained its name, got in touch with representatives from Dagestani villages where he expected the raiders to live. Those representatives were soldiers of higher rank or village administrators (or both), but the crucial factor for their informal political authority was their status as elders. All the elders in a community taken together constituted an institution referred to as jamaat.[1]

Preserved in the archive of the Tushetian village council, two protocols (dated 1991 and 1994) recounted meetings of administrative bodies in Dagestan and eight letters written in Russian, which were exchanged between the council of Tusheti and the jamaat of Xusheti[2] between 1993 and 1995. These protocols and letters document political and legal procedures for criminal cases. The first initiative was taken by a Tushetian delegation sent to the region of Xusheti in order to contact the local jamaat. Acknowledging the complaints of their southern neighbours, the elders promised to punish the raiders and to prevent future criminal acts. For this purpose, they revived a pre-Soviet tradition that required every adult male villager to swear on the Qur’an that they would refrain from attacking the Tushetians and seizing their property. Additionally, they reported 13 names of robbers to the Tushetian council and told the council to get in touch with state representatives in Makhachkala (capital of Dagestan) “in order to punish severely the robbers by the [civil] law.”[3] The cases of cattle theft were also resolved by means of face-to-face negotiations, sometimes with the aid of the Tushetian border guards. As stated in a letter from “the administrator of Xusheti” from 1995, the Tushetian border guards kept two cows from their northern neighbours as a kind of deposit for cattle stolen and held on the other side of the border.



The events of 11 September 2001 had a profound impact on politics across the world, including in Tusheti. In addition to Russian claims that Chechen fighters were taking refuge in the Georgian mountains during the second Chechen-Russian since 1999 and that the Georgian state was either unwilling or incapable of controlling its borders, now Al Qaida and even Bin Laden personally were suspected of residing on Georgian territory. The hot spot of the day was Pankisi, a valley neighbouring Tusheti and bordering Chechnya. The local population, who go by the name Kists, had fled from Chechnya in the 19th century, and many of them maintained close ties to relatives on the northern side of the Caucasus mountains.

In the second half of the 1990s, the Georgian government effectively lost control over this region. There was widespread corruption involving Georgian state officials, drug trafficking, money laundering, reports of radical Muslim propaganda, and military training for Chechen fighters and their allies. In the years to come, an Arab and an Algerian citizen residing in Pankisi without Georgian visas were imprisoned by Georgian police forces. Some of the foreign trained fighters also fought in the second Chechen war.

The Georgian government at that time attempted to dismiss the accusations, but with limited success. As the Russian government threatened to invade Georgia in order to arrest the Chechen and Muslim fighters, then president Shevardnadze appealed to the US government for support. With its strategic interest in the Caucasus and support for the Georgian political orientation towards the West, the US provided assistance in the form of military aid and training. In spring 2002, approximately 200 Special Operations Forces were sent to train and equip four 300-man Georgian battalions with light weapons, vehicles and communication devices. With this kind of support, the Georgian army was able to invade the Pankisi gorge in summer 2002 and reassert state control.

The Georgian military and its capacity to control its national borders were monitored and fostered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE). Having already started their mission to Georgia in 1992, the OSCE was mandated to observe and report on movement across parts of the border between Georgia and the Russian Federation from late 1999 until the end of 2004. While the area of operation initially only covered the border between Georgia and the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation, it was extended in subsequent years to the Ingush and Dagestan segments of the Georgian-Russian border.

In the heyday of the OSCE mission to Georgia, plenty of employees from all over Europe had focused their binoculars on the Russian side of the border. The monitors could testify that any kind of border transgression had clearly come to an end. With the beginning of the new millennium, the two sides of the Caucasus had been effectively disconnected. Locals from the Northern Caucasus could no longer go shopping in Omalo, as they had done in the 1990s, and the Georgian shepherds could no longer use pastures in Dagestan, as they had done for centuries. Any kind of trans-boundary diplomacy had to be enacted via state authorities and direct negotiations were no longer possible. Moreover, the Tushetians could no longer decide for themselves whom to allow on their territory and whom to reject.

In the course of an OSCE training program – and possibly related to it – the organisational structure of the border guards underwent significant changes. In 2006, their affiliation was changed from military to police, thus bringing the personnel under control of the Georgian ministry of internal affairs and thus coordinating their actions with other forms of policing. In recent years, the recruiting and placement criteria have also altered. In the beginning, local affiliation was seen as an advantage for border guards because of the local expertise and social embeddedness of the soldiers. After a while, this policy was dismissed as disadvantageous. Consequently, the border guards today come from all parts of Georgia, with Tushetians in the minority. What began as an effort to police the border “from below” ended (and in some ways resulted) in a consolidation of policing authority in state hands.


The Georgian state the Tushetians sought to protect was envisioned as both a presence and an absence: a presence in the performances of physical control over territory, an absence in the practice of regulating the social, religious and legal relations with the neighbours. But the state the Tushetians invoked once they put on Georgian uniforms was a captivating one that, over the course of time, didn’t make any concessions: The intentions of its subjects ended at the borders it defined. The uniform the Tushetians voluntarily assumed in order to strengthen their status, in turn, became a captivating force of their own dispossession. Whereas initially, they hoped to increase their bargaining position in a more structured relationship with their neighbours, they later had to realize that representing a state can take various meanings in various contexts with different, sometimes paralyzing consequences. One such consequence was that Tushetians could no longer attend religious festivals alongside their Muslim neighbours, as they have done for centuries. Another consequence was that they were no longer capable of settling conflicts directly with their counterparts on the other side of the border, and that routinized practices of creating social bonds across lines of ethnic, religious and regional affiliation such as sworn brotherhood could no longer be practiced.

What this case also illustrates is that acting and speaking in the name of the state occasionally causes unanticipated and unwanted consequences. What was initially expected to increase the scope of agency eventually paved the way for its very limitation. One obvious reason for this is that uniforms reproduce chains of command, and thus their use inadvertently stratified and solidified a hierarchical system. In the turmoil that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union and re-making of statehood in post-Soviet Georgia, central authority was rather weak and left much room for non-state actors to take state affairs in their own hands; this was the case for Tushetians. With the consolidation of centralized power, their superiors from the Georgian government based in the Georgian capital prioritized security concerns over local interests. This quest for security, in turn, was supported by Georgia’s Western allies such as the European Union and particularly the Unites States.

Moreover, Tushetians began to invoke a new conception of statehood during this period. For centuries, Tushetians have guarded the northern border to Georgia, alongside other groups who live in the Caucasian mountains such as Khevsurs. In addition to the presence of self-armed forces ready to ward-off incursions, signal towers were erected by the locals, but not least in the interest of the political power holders in the lowlands to communicate the danger of an approaching enemy. Such border guarding, however, consolidated these local populations’ autonomy vis-à-vis the state centre by increasing their bargaining power because they acted outside of a chain of command. The Georgian state which began to consolidate amidst the chaos of the 1990s, however, was unwilling to accept these fluidity borders. In an ironic twist, Tushetians provided the very legibility needed to pave the way for the state apparatus to regulate their lives(cf. Scott 1998).

Florian Mühlfried is full professor for social anthropology at the Ilia State University in Georgia. His publications include the monographs Mistrust: A Global Perspective (2019) and Being a State and States of Being in Highland Georgia (2014) as well as the co-edited volumes Sacred Places, Emerging Spaces: Religious Pluralism in the Post-Soviet Caucasus (2018) and Soviet Era Anthropology in the Caucasus and Central Asia (2012).

Works Cited

Jähnig, Wolfgang. 1983. Die Siedlungsplanung im ländlichen Raum der Sowjetunion mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Konzepts der ‘Agrostadt’. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.

Mühlfried, Florian. 2014. Being a State and States of Being in Highland Georgia. Oxford, New York: Berghahn.

Pallot, Judith. 1990. „Rural Depopulation and the Restoration of the Russian Village under Gorbachev.“ Soviet Studies 42 (2): 655–674.

Pelkmans, Mathijs. 2006. Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Reeves, Madeleine. 2013. Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia. Ithaka, NY: Cornell University Press.

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.


[1] For more details on the history and functions of these jamaats, see Mühlfried 2014: 133ff.

[2] Xusheti (also called Iusheti in one letter) is an unofficial name of a region in Dagestan bordering Tusheti. It is used in the letters as a self-designation of the respective jamaat, and by the Tushetians in colloquial conversations. However, it is not testified for in official sources.

[3] It is unknown to me, if this punishment was ever enacted. I also cannot verify if they were punished by the jamaat according to religious law, as stated by the head of the Tushetian council in an interview.


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