Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

10 years on: Russia's occupation of Georgian territory

  • Statue in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (Photo: Thomas Depenbusch)

Ten years after the brief Russia-Georgia war, Moscow continues to be in breach of its international obligations.

Russia has not only failed to implement key elements of the six-point ceasefire agreement brokered by then–French president Nicolas Sarkozy in August 2008, it has also consolidated its presence in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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The Russian military has not withdrawn to the positions they held before hostilities began.

Access to the occupied territories is still denied to international human rights monitors and humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) is unable to fully carry out its mandate as it is prevented from entering Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Beyond toothless statements, the international community – in particular the EU and US - has failed to challenge Russia for its non-compliance and ongoing occupation of some 20 percent of Georgia's internationally recognised territory.

Consequently Russia has felt emboldened.

Moscow's annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 may have been prevented if the EU and others had reacted more robustly to Russian aggression in Georgia.

Over the past ten years both regions have become more isolated and dependent on Russia.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia

In 2015 Russia signed so-called integration treaties with the separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, absorbing them into Russia's political, economic, and social systems.

In March 2017, the armed forces of South Ossetia were fully integrated into the Russian military. Both territories have become large, fully-operational Russian military bases.

Thousands of Russian troops, along with sophisticated offensive weaponry occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including tactical ballistic missiles. Russia uses its presence to project power and when necessary, create instability.

Large scale military exercises also undermine the region's fragile security.

With the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, just 48km away from South Ossetia, there is every reason for Georgians to feel threatened.

Russia's principal goal is to keep Georgia out of the Western community by undermining Tbilisi's efforts to join Nato and the EU.

Since 2011 security officials from Russia's Federal Security Service (FES), which patrols the line of occupation along with the separatist forces, have implemented a policy of "borderisation".

They gradually shift their barbed wire deeper into Georgian territory.

This process has not only divided communities, it often leaves Georgian citizens on the wrong side of the border which forces them to leave their homes, land and livelihood.

The human rights situation for ethnic Georgians is also extremely worrying. Fundamental rights are infringed on a daily basis with increased ethnic discrimination.

No Georgian

This includes prohibition of education in Georgian.

The Russian forces and separatist authorities frequently restrict movement across the de facto border, detaining, kidnapping and fining dozens of people for "illegal" border crossing.

The case of Georgian internally-displaced person Archil Tatunashvili, who was kidnapped and subsequently died while in detention in South Ossetia is one such example.

Russia's consolidated presence and the West's failure to counter it has contributed to a solution to the conflicts being further away today than in 2008. Talks to resolve the conflicts are gridlocked.

The Geneva International Discussions which brings together Georgian, Russian, Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and US participants under the co-chairmanship of the EU, the UN and the OSCE, have become an instrument to manage rather than resolve the conflicts.

The EU and US should call on Russia to fulfil unconditionally all the provisions of the 2008 ceasefire agreement, end "borderisation", refrain from advancing further into Georgian territory and reverse its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Russia should also guarantee full access to the occupied territories to the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) and humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Georgia's leadership should strengthen efforts to engage with the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In April 2018, the government presented a peace initiative – A Step to a Better Future – aimed to facilitate trade, provide educational opportunities and give access to the benefits of European integration.

While the separatist authorities rejected the initiative, Georgia's willingness to build bridges is a positive step and Tbilisi should persevere in that direction.

Russia has faced consequences for its actions in Ukraine – including related to its annexation and occupation of Crimea.

It should be made clear that if Russia does not meet its international obligations and continues to take steps that undermine regional security and violate human rights it will face consequences too, including possible sanctions.

By sitting on their hands, the international community is giving Russia a green light to do whatever it wants in Georgia's occupied territories, in the knowledge that there is no price to pay.

This approach needs to end.

Amanda Paul is a senior policy analyst focussing on Turkey, the Black Sea/Eurasia and Russia at the European Policy Centre

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