TBILISI -- The construction of a number of new roads leading to Russia -- with increased load-bearing capacity, bridges and tunnels -- has alarmed many Georgians, who fear the new infrastructure could benefit Russia's future military ambitions.
Russia already occupies 20% of Georgia.
At present just one road -- the Georgian Military Highway (GMH), which passes through the Upper Lars (Verkhnii Lars) checkpoint -- connects the two countries.
The GMH is Russia's only functioning gateway to Georgia and to Armenia, its main ally in the South Caucasus.
Another option, a road and railway through Russian-occupied Abkhazia (a breakaway Georgian province), has been shuttered since Russia occupied it in 1993.
But the capacity and topography of the GMH no longer suit traffic volume, and construction is under way to build a 23km-long bypass -- the Kvesheti-Kobi road -- that will improve traffic flow and capacity and minimise weather-related closures.
The Georgian government, Asian Development Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are funding the 1.2 billion GEL ($466 million) Kvesheti-Kobi project, which began in 2021 and is slated to end in 2024.
The GMH's inadequacies became painfully evident last autumn, when traffic jams formed for weeks as Russian men fled to Georgia en masse after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the draft of 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, other road construction is going on in Russia -- pointed toward Georgia.
"In North Ossetia we are opening ... a tunnel to the Mamison [Mamisoni in Georgian] recreation complex. All of this will energise tourism in the southern part of the country," Putin said in a televised address December 13.
"It goes without saying that we need to continue to create transport corridors," Putin said in the address, which marked the opening of new frontiers on Russia's southern border.
"Building a tunnel is the first step," said Sergey Menyaylo, head of North Ossetia, a Russian internal republic. "We are now building the next two sections of the road and have reached the Mamison Pass already."
Mamisoni Pass, almost 3km above sea level, is on the border between North Ossetia and Georgia.
Anyone using Google Earth can see the Russian road construction under way. A new, still unpaved road is visible adjacent to the Russo-Georgian border.
The route leads to an area that requires only 5–8km of additional road to lead to the Georgian frontier.
Mamisoni Pass has a bitter historical resonance for Georgians. The Red Army marched through it more than a century ago to end the fledgling (1918-1921) Georgian republic.
That year, "an entire brigade of the Bolsheviks' 10th Army, which was taking part in the occupation, entered Georgia through the Mamisoni Pass. That was in February, in freezing temperatures", historian Dimitri Silakadze told Caravanserai.
The activity of Georgian authorities in the border zone south of Mamisoni Pass is serving Russia's interests too.
In mid-February, residents of Glola and Shovi villages in Racha region discovered that Tbilisi had changed the status of their farmland. They no longer may build even a wooden hut along the road to the pass.
Georgia placed the entire zone under the contractual control of an investor. It is planning to construct 18-metre-high concrete buildings of no apparent use to agriculture in the mountain forests.
Roads to and from Chechnya too
Since the Red Army crossed Mamisoni on foot in wintertime more than a century ago, "we can and must expect that it might try to also push its way in through other passes using modern vehicles if an order came down", Silakadze said.
Another point of vulnerability is Georgia's border with Chechnya (another Russian internal republic), he noted.
After the pro-Kremlin Georgian Dream coalition came to power in 2012, "the government immediately started rebuilding the road to Shatili, a mountain village 2km from Chechnya", said Georgian investigative reporter at iFact Nanuka Bregadze.
For several years, Bregadze has been trying to understand what principles guide the Georgian government's choice of projects.
"In the winter, only about 20 people live there," she said of Shatili.
So the highway built for war that the government is still laying down makes no apparent sense.
The village does not need "huge bridges that can each support 40 tonnes" and are strong enough to withstand the weight of a combat vehicle, she said.
If the villagers had been asked, they might have pointed to more modest needs, such as "repairing the small hydroelectric power plant or getting an ambulance", she noted. "But no one asked them."
Simultaneously in Chechnya, across the border, road construction pointing to Georgia is under way.
The Chechen provincial government has made this road one of its priorities for 2025. It will be 49km long and will cost almost $165 million, according to estimates.
"The sanctions against Russia are forcing us to look for new capacity to increase cargo traffic," Chechen Prime Minister Muslim Huchiyev told Russian Security Council chairman Nikolai Patrushev in March 2022.
A road to Georgia would provide access to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, he said: "These days that is much more important."
'Danger always comes from Russia'
Bregadze and her colleagues from iFact have travelled around other border regions and talked to residents who shared their fears.
"Danger always comes from Russia," Zelimkhan Ochiauri of the Georgian village of Amgha -- which is just 5km from Ingushetia, Russia, told them.
"We don't want the road to go to Russia," he told the iFact team. "I've heard that on the other side the Russians have big military bases, and even helicopters and tanks."
The combined road-building efforts of Georgia and Russia will nullify Georgia's almost decade-long fight to keep Russia from using it as a transit point for semi-legal or outright illegal trade, former Georgian ambassador to Switzerland Zurab Chiaberashvili told Caravanserai.
The stakes are high for Russia now that Western sanctions levied after its invasion of Ukraine are inhibiting its exports and imports.
In 2011, Chiaberashvili said, Russia joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) -- a move Georgia had long been blocking -- and agreed to Georgia's terms in an associated agreement.
"Opening new roads will simply free [Russia] from commitment to the WTO," he said.
Those roads, not part of the WTO's terms, will "transport any cargo ... including sanctioned goods", he said.