23rd Sep 2019

Strained relations between Russians, EU monitors in Georgia

  • Hansjorg Haber at the EUMM headquarters in Tbilisi (Photo: EUobserver)

Russia is not informing the EU mission of their deployment of troops, nor is it allowing observers to enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Hansjorg Haber, the head of EU's civilian monitoring mission to Georgia (EUMM) has said.

The German diplomat held talks with EU ambassadors to inform them about the situation in Georgia, a month after the mission was deployed to monitor the withdrawal of the Russian troops to their initial positions prior to the August war.

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After the first big task was largely completed – monitoring the Russian withdrawal from the adjacent areas to Abkhazia and South Ossetia – EU monitors now try on a "daily basis" to enter the territory of the two breakaway provinces, so far unsuccessfully however, Mr Haber told journalists on Friday (24 October) in Brussels.

"We ask, we knock at the door and we think that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian de facto authorities may have their own interest in admitting us if they want alleged shootings from the Georgian side to be investigated and reported on," said the head of the EUMM mission.

Both the president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have accused the EUMM of turning a "blind eye" to Tbilisi's deployment of special forces on the border who shoot at Ossetian positions.

Mr Haber dismissed these allegations as "overblown", saying that the situation is "surprisingly calm" in the adjacent areas.

"Georgian special forces are not what Moscow understands. They're lightly armed police units, not travelling in armoured vehicles, and needed to restore law and order in adjacent areas," Mr Haber said.

Asked to describe how daily communication with the Russians proceeds, Mr Haber said that the EUMM does not have "any telephone number from their side, although we have been asking for it and are asking for it again."

"We work with the Russians through the Swiss embassy in Tbilisi," he explained.

Relations with the Russians are also "difficult" he said because Moscow is in the process of exchanging its peace-keepers with regular troops, Mr Haber explained.

Since the EU does not recognise the independence of the two breakaway provinces, "there is no legal foundation" for the stationing of an announced 3700 Russian regular troops to replace the 500 peacekeepers, he said.

"There are still regular troops displaying peacekeeping insignia, so we don't know how many they are at this moment," Mr Haber added.

Returning refugees forced to take Russian passports

Some 4,400 people have fled the Akhalgori valley, previously a Georgian-inhabited and administered district within the South Ossetian borders, and have found shelter mostly in Tbilisi, Mr Haber said.

Yet for the people returning to South Ossetia, the situation is tough, as according to reports, they are required to take Russian passports, he said.

"If Russia recognises South Ossetia, then it also has an obligation that certain standards be observed. Forcing refugees to accept different passports just to be able to return to their homes is certainly not one of these standards," said the German diplomat.

Mr Haber added that internally displaced people are sometimes returning too rapidly to areas where there are still unexploded munitions.

"We are collaborating with Halo Trust who are collecting ordnance. We are also conducting a mine awareness campaign in these areas where there is unexploded ordnance, already identified by Halo Trust", he said.

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