From the Series: Speaking Volumes
The night the Russians bombed her village, Manana Abaeva could not walk. While the Russian 58th Army was battling the Georgian Army to control the Roki Tunnel, a deep passageway under the Caucasus mountains, Abaeva was immobilized by deep-vein thrombosis caused by a blood clot in her leg. If the clot were to break loose and travel to her lungs, it could cause a fatal embolism. Yet, if she did not move, she could be killed in the struggle over another kind of clot: Georgia’s fight to close the end of the Roki Tunnel before Russia could move tanks and soldiers through it and occupy the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
The strange and deadly parallels between the clot in Abaeva’s vein and the clot at the tunnel highlight a new and vital problem in the securitization of space: the need to securitize the subterranean. Tunnels are used by states to gain access to new territory, but also by those seeking to disrupt or evade state power. They are used to move soldiers and weapons, shield combatants from satellites and drones, and move drugs, prisoners, and nuclear material. They are also blocked to prevent or channel that movement. Although security and territory have traditionally been thought of in terms of securing the area—that is, surfaces delimited by borders—the securitization of the underground now forces us to think about securing the volume, and about the ways topography is used to contest these attempts.
In Stuart Elden’s (2013) reading, tunnels like Roki are material forms of vertical geopolitics, a volumetric project of spatial domination. Surrounded by rock and easily guarded, they might seem to offer enormous control over movement. This was the vision of the Soviets, who constructed the tunnel in 1984 to bypass the high mountain passes of the Caucasus, which are blocked by deep snow and avalanches much of the year and thus impede attempts to control the region. Although the Soviets claimed that the tunnel was meant to allow year-round trade, someone who worked on the tunnel told me decades later that everyone knew “it was to move an army” in the event Georgia attempted to break away.
That army did not come for twenty-four years. But in 2008, when Georgia (now an independent nation) attempted to join NATO, Russia moved the 58th Army to the tunnel. Georgia moved quickly to seal off the tunnel’s southern end and prevent invasion. But it was too late: Georgian forces were quickly overwhelmed and Russian troops occupied South Ossetia, a position from which they could occupy the rest of Georgia at any moment. For the last nine years, traffic through the tunnel has been controlled by Russia, which has forces stationed at each end.
A tunnel is more than infrastructure, more than an object fixed in space “that creates the grounds on which other objects operate” (Larkin 2013, 329). It is a social process, not just a thing but also a relation between other things. Control of the tunnel is thus not just a question of space but also of sociality; not just of physical infrastructure, but also of clotting—a socially contested process of reducing or stopping flow.
As spatially congealed forms of sociality, clots have three interesting properties. First, as the Roki Tunnel showed, they are leaky: soon after the war ended, many of the people displaced from South Ossetia resumed smuggling everything from apples to construction material across the administrative boundary line (ABL) between South Ossetia and Georgia and north through the tunnel into Russia, where they could make profits of up to $20,000 a truckload. Nuclear material stolen from Russian power plants and labs began moving south through the tunnel: Georgian authorities intercepted smuggled uranium-235, which can be used to make a dirty bomb, more than three times in 2015 alone, leading to questions about how much radioactive material had made it to Turkey, where it could be purchased by terrorist groups.
Clots are also mobile, as the Russians’ attempts to stem smuggling showed. To prevent movement from Georgia to South Ossetia, they moved the clot from the tunnel deep in the mountains and installed razor wire and video cameras across the roads and paths crossing the ABL. Yet smuggling continued. In 2016, they increased the level of violence used to clot transboundary flow, sentencing border crossers to prison or simply shooting them. Yet movement across the border and through the tunnel continued. The severity of the punishment betrayed the difficulty of the spatial problem: instead of one vein to clot, now there were literally thousands of capillaries that would have to be cauterized.
Neither the materiality of mountains nor the subterranean constraints on mobility provided by tunnels could prevent movement, because finally, clots are mutable. The smugglers’ response to Russia’s materialized security apparatus was to transform the clot from material to social obstacle and to bypass it using kinship. They created chains of social relations that led to ethnically Ossetian border guards, who let their relatives (or the relatives of their relatives) past the checkpoints. Today, despite ongoing attempts at securitizing both underground and above-ground territory, threats to both Russia and Georgia continue to pass through the Roki Tunnel, and the relationship between the two countries remains on the brink of renewed war.
In his call for thinking volumetrically, Elden offers new ways to think about geopower, as a spatial analogue to biopower that operates in and through (and over and under) the Earth. Yet, as the contested process of clotting shows, it is not enough to think about geopower in terms of topography or architecture. There is a fourth dimension: the social or lived relations between persons, which both enact and bypass state-sponsored attempts to secure the volume.
Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34: 35–51.
Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327–43.