27th Mar 2017


A mission for all of Georgia

  • Russian soldiers in Georgia - the EUMM risks recognising Georgia's partition (Photo:

Joseph Stalin is probably turning in his grave as police from the European Union patrol the streets of his home town, Gori, Georgia. The European Union's decision on 15 September to deploy a EU monitoring mission to this part of the former Soviet Union is indeed a significant step. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently holding the rotating EU presidency, has to some extent been justified in heralding Russia's acquiescence to the mission as a clear victory for European diplomacy.

But the constraints the EU faces are evident as well. Sarkozy felt he needed President Dmitry Medvedev's approval to deploy in a country in Europe's new neighbourhood with its own NATO and EU membership aspirations. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that the EU will not be welcome in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, entities Russia now recognises as independent states. For now the observers will be sent to confirm Russia's withdrawal from Georgia, particularly the towns of Poti and Senaki, and villages between Gori and the South Ossetian administrative border. Russia has pledged to withdraw by 10 October.

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A good start, but not nearly enough. Member states are going to have to push Russia much harder to guarantee that the mission will be able to work throughout Georgia, including in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

If the EU is unable to act in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and if Russia completes its final withdrawal from the rest of Georgia, the mission's futility will rapidly become obvious. EU observers will be overseeing a fairly mundane return to normal life in a handful of towns and villages in western and central Georgia: including the ongoing return of some 127,000 displaced persons, reconstruction of their homes, and handout of humanitarian aid. Monitors will be unarmed and unable to intervene if any violence occurs. The best the EU's personnel can do is take testimony of what happened during the actual conflict and begin determining what crimes occurred. But a month or two should suffice for such work. Thereafter, the EU's presence will be superfluous in those areas.

The real work needs to be done in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the mission should be mandated to monitor the withdrawal of Ossetian, Abkhaz, Georgian and Russian forces to their pre-7 August positions; re-establish security, put an end to the ongoing destruction of Georgian homes and properties in South Ossetia; help in the provision of humanitarian assistance; and most importantly, assist return of displaced persons, Georgian and Ossetian, facilitate their reconciliation and assist investigations into alleged war crimes on all sides. So far, the Russians are claiming that the Ossetians and Abkhaz trust Moscow alone to carry out these tasks. But if the EU deploys only to territory controlled by Tbilisi, the EU is inherently recognising Georgia's partition

International talks on security, stability and return of displaced, are due to start on 14 October in Geneva. After securing that Russia and Georgia take part, the EU should push them to accept that the Ossetians and Abkhaz have a place at the table. Tbilisi needs to talk not only to the Russians but also to those that it likes to still call Georgian citizens. The South Ossetians and Abkhaz also have to be included in a donors' conference expected in Brussels in October. Further isolation of the two parties will only postpone any deployment of EU monitors to the territory they control and keep the situation tense and unstable.

For both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, having Russia as their only friend is going to handicap any future development, limit their political and economic room for manoeuvre, and ultimately undermine their own security. The EU is offering them another perspective, with neutral observers who will carry out their duties without prejudice to previous conflict causes. Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, the two breakaway capitals, should accept them and involvement in a political process which the Geneva talks aim to kick off on 14 October.

In Georgia even the future of the UN, which has a 200-strong observation mission in Abkhazia and western Georgia, is in doubt. The UN mission's mandate comes up for review 15 October and Russia is likely to put up a fight in the Security Council, at a minimum questioning why the mission's name should include the word "Georgia" when Moscow has already recognised Abkhazia as a separate state. The work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, present in South Ossetia since 1992, is no better guaranteed. Though Moscow approved the deployment of 20 new observers to that mission in September, another 80 were not agreed upon and the pan-European security group has regularly been denied access to South Ossetia.

If the European Union really wants to assist Georgians, Ossetians and Abkhaz, and bring security and stability to its neighbourhood, it will have to do more than stroll in Stalin's gardens. The political challenges facing the EU are numerous but it needs to be in the breakaway regions as well if it wants to effectively help resolve, rather than again freeze, the conflict.

Sabine Freizer is Europe programme director at the International Crisis Group


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