Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

Russian troops must leave disputed territories, EUMM chief says

  • The EUMM team at work in Georgia (Photo: EUobserver)

Russian troops must withdraw from the areas inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia previously controlled by Georgian authorities, namely the Akhalgori district and the Kodori valley, Hansjorg Haber, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) told EUobserver.

With the Russians having dismantled their checkpoints from Georgian territory two days ahead of the 10 October deadline, the EU's mission to Georgia does not end, Mr Haber said, adding that it has a one-year mandate which also includes "confidence building measures" and efforts to "normalize" the situation.

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The 226 observers on the ground are now patrolling "the entire adjacent area and beyond", he said.

Asked if the monitors are allowed into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Mr Haber answered "not yet." "But we have always made it clear that we consider Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of our mandate", he added.

"We want to go there, we told the Russians that we want to do so and we think we have a basis in the agreement from 12 August and 8 September – but so far we have not managed to get access there."

On the interaction with the Russians, Mr Haber said it was "business like," with the handover taking place under time pressure.

There were several talks between Mr Haber's deputy and the military commanders in South Ossetia and Abkhazia about the "details of the hand-over," and still there was "an element of surprise" with the withdrawal in South Ossetia, which was "largely unannounced."

"But overall the technical talks went well and we want them to continue," he said.

Concerning the Kodori and Akhalgori areas still occupied by Russian troops, Mr Haber explained that they were not included in the agreement to withdraw from the adjacent areas by 10 October, "but they fall under the provision that the Russian troops must return to the areas of their previous cantonment before the war."

"It is our standpoint that they must withdraw from there and we will tell them so," he stressed, while reminding that French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner also said that the situation of these two districts will be brought up at the upcoming Geneva talks on 15 October.

Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is insisting that the agreement reached between the Russian and French presidents did not include the withdrawal from Akhalgori.

"Akhalgori is within the South Ossetian boundaries; hence provisions of the plan do not cover it," Russian news agencies quoted Mr Lavrov as saying in Dortmund on Saturday (11 October), when he met with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

EU can help only by 'getting the Russians out'

The interaction between local authorities and EU monitors seemed to be working well on Sunday (12 October), when one Romanian observer team met Akhalgori representatives on a construction site some 20 km from the South Ossetian border, where 2,700 houses were being built by the Georgian government for the refugees from that area.

There are 22 EU member states who have contributed with observer teams for the Georgia mission, the 20 Romanians being based together with British, Swedish and Irish observers in the Bazaleti EUMM field office covering also the district of Akhalgori.

Cesar Chocheli, governor of Mtskheta-Mtianeti region which up until now included the town and district of Akhalgori, told the EU monitors that some 70% of the population left the area, with old and sick people left behind in a very unsafe and hostile environment.

"So far, Akhalgori was inhabited by 7,200 Georgians and 800 Ossetians who lived peacefully together. This is an artificial conflict," he said, adding that it is not local Ossetians who loot and destroy properties, but "criminals" from the South Ossetian cities of Tzkhinvali and Java.

While appreciating the talks with the EUMM team, Devi Ovashvili, a Georgian MP from Akhalgori district said that there were several contacts already established with different international organizations who all "come and talk to us and want to find out what we need."

"They propose different projects to us, but meanwhile we're finishing the houses and still didn't get any financial assistance from them," he said.

Filon Morar, head of the Romanian EUMM team stressed that these fact finding talks are useful in order to define the special needs of the affected population, especially in view of the upcoming international donor conference in Brussels on 22 October.

Yet to the Georgian MP from Akhalgori, "the only help the EU can give us is to make the Russians leave. And to let us join NATO, so that we can feel more safe."

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