Russian armored vehicles make their way to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, in 2008. The Russian military quickly routed the Georgian army during the August 2008 war. (Musa Sadulayev/AP)

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the number of new border walls across the globe has risen from 15 to around 70. Intractable conflicts, the global war on terrorism, and populist cries to “take control of our borders” have fueled the construction of concrete walls, barriers and barbed-wire fences.

Border walls are compelling visual symbols, whether or not they actually keep people out. But what do these walls actually symbolize? Here are some key takeaways from a contested border project within the country of Georgia.

Sovereignty or tyranny?

A border wall is a material proclamation of power and control. Border walls, one scholar argues, “entice us to misrecognize their height and strength as an index of sovereignty, safety, certainty — a line that distinguishes us from them.” The act of drawing a line appeals to populist politicians such as President Trump.

But border walls are violent impositions to those whose lives are disrupted or restricted, or whose property is dissected. Concrete and barbed wire can signify state tyranny. The Cold War in Europe, after all, was symbolized by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. Border walls defined the geographic limits of the “free world.” Recall President Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet leadership in Berlin in June 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

In the small South Caucasus state of Georgia, a widely condemned border construction project provides insight into today’s border wall geopolitics. Here’s what you need to know.

Background on the conflict between Russia and Georgia

In August 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war. Afterward, the Russian Federation recognized two breakaway regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — as independent states. Both are Russian protectorates and host Russian bases.

A year later, border guards from Russia and South Ossetia, following mostly a 1984 Soviet General Staff map, began constructing a fence to demarcate what they termed an “international border” with Georgia. European Union officials, part of a monitoring mission sent to Georgia after the war, coined the word “borderization” to describe the construction of physical barriers to free movement along a disputed territorial line to simulate an international border.

Lands and people once connected in Georgia have been physically divided. Everyday mobility is restricted. Local residents are cut off from farmland, schools and graveyards. Fences, barbed wire, posts and trenches cover about 60 kilometers (37 miles) of the 391-kilometer (243-mile) South Ossetian boundary line, 230 kilometers (143 miles) of which is mountainous.

Borderization quickly became a political football

In a recent publication, we trace the political use of borderization in Georgian politics. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, facing growing political unrest in 2009, sought to use borderization to rally the population to his side. He latched on to the catchphrase “The enemy stands at 40 kilometers” — roughly the distance between Tbilisi and South Ossetia — as a way of refocusing domestic politics around the looming Russian threat at the border.

The gambit failed. Saakashvili’s United National Movement party lost the October 2012 parliamentary elections. But Saakashvili then doubled down on his political strategy, promoting new catchphrases such as “creeping occupation” and “creeping annexation.”

Just before Georgia’s October 2013 presidential election, Saakashvili made a televised address in front of a “border” fence and signpost. “Behind me you see this shameful curtain,” he said. Amplifying the enemy at the border, however, failed once again. Saakashvili’s candidate lost the election.

Borderization and Georgia’s international image

These domestic failures notwithstanding, successive Georgian governments have used borderization in the international arena to consolidate the image of Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression. Georgia describes South Ossetia and Abkhazia as “occupied territories.”

The term is understandable — Russia’s role was vital in creating these areas as de facto states — but, contrary to common-sense understandings of occupation, the vast majority of residents living in these areas strongly support Russia.

Georgia, as one might expect, spotlights ethnic Georgian victims. (And there are many.) One farmer, for instance, found his backyard bisected by barbed wire. His property subsequently became a must-see location for international officials visiting Georgia. A select list of the foreign dignitaries who have chatted with him in the past five years include the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and Slovakia; the NATO supreme allied commander for Europe; U.S. Army Europe’s commanding general; and a trio of U.S. senators (John McCain, Lindsey O. Graham and Amy Klobuchar).

As tensions with Russia have increased, so has the symbolism attributed to borderization. Some term it a little Berlin Wall, or Europe’s edge. During his August 2017 state trip to Georgia, Vice President Pence did not visit the disputed boundary line. But he possibly did imagine himself, like Reagan did in Berlin, in a deeply symbolic location when addressing U.S. and Georgian troops participating in the NATO military exercise Noble Partner: “We stand here today in the gap, on a front line of freedom, a front line compromised by Russian aggression nearly a decade ago.”

Echoing Saakashvili’s catchphrase, Pence reminded the joint troop gathering that “just 40 miles from where we stand, Russian tanks sit on Georgian land in South Ossetia.” The United States, he declared, “strongly condemns Russia’s occupation of Georgia’s soil.” Subsequently, the White House communications team released an inspirational video montage of Pence’s speech.

Both Reagan’s “tear down this wall” — which ushered in the idea of a “Europe whole and free” — and Trump’s “build the wall” are slogans within broader American identity-assertion projects. The themes may seem at odds but are not necessarily so. Trump, after all, ran on Reagan’s “make America great again” catchphrase.

Beyond the question of how different wall tropes coexist in today’s politics, one thing is clear. Politicians find the symbolism of border walls irresistible.

Gerard Toal is a professor of international affairs at Virginia Tech in the National Capital Region and author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

Gela Merabishvili is a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech.