Last fall, I boarded a ramshackle bus winding through the villages and vineyards on the Georgian side of the demarcation line with the breakaway region of South Ossetia. I was there to see what I could learn about the dangers of nuclear smuggling.
Even before Georgia's disastrous war with Russia in August 2008, South Ossetia was something of a no-man's land. Controlled by a self-declared government and militia of irregulars, it had become a smuggling haven for the illegal trade in alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs that supported the local economy. "It's hugely problematic," a senior Western diplomat in Tbilisi told me of the breakaway regions. "They provide havens for human trafficking and nuclear smuggling."
South Ossetia is precisely the kind of jurisdictional "black hole" that experts say poses such a great risk to nuclear proliferation. In fact, in an announcement that was largely ignored during the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. President Mikheil Saakashvili revealed that in March, Georgia had once again intercepted smugglers with weapons-grade uranium, the country's eighth such bust in the last decade.
Although the Georgian government has not elaborated on the case, the country's smuggling problems have long been linked to the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (a third breakaway region, Ajaria, has since been brought back under Georgian control). The territories, which are recognized as independent states only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, have presented a strategic conundrum when it comes to border security.
Georgia does not recognize them as separate regions, so there are no formal border checkpoints. Yet without access to the regions' external borders, Georgia also cannot police what comes in and out. Seizures of weapons-grade material are still rare enough -- and dangerous enough -- that such news would normally capture headlines. But overshadowed by the events of the summit, the Georgian president's announcement was initially picked up by only a handful of outlets. Saakashvili wasn't even able to get a personal meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on the summit's sidelines.