Thursday

2nd Feb 2023

Estonia urges EU peacekeepers for Georgia

  • The South Caucasus - Europe's gateway to Central Asia's oil and gas (Photo: Wikipedia)

Estonia has called for EU soldiers to be sent to Georgia after a flare up in fighting in the country's breakaway South Ossetia region, with the European Union increasingly keen to get involved in Georgian peacemaking.

"I talked with my colleagues from Sweden and Finland. We think...the current president of the European Union, and the European Commission should closely follow the developments and react if necessary," Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet said in a statement on Monday (4 August).

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"Peacekeeping in these regions is a suitable undertaking for the European Union," he added, noting that the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, will visit Georgia "shortly."

The Estonian statement comes after a shoot out between the Georgian army and separatist forces in South Ossetia over the weekend left six people dead and 22 wounded, with the Russian foreign ministry warning that "the threat of large-scale hostilities...is growing real."

Rebel authorities in South Ossetia said the casualty figures were higher and that they are evacuating thousands of women and children to the neighbouring Russian province of North Ossetia, in claims rubbished by the Georgian government.

"Actions are being undertaken to create an illusion of large-scale armed conflict, as if we were on the brink of war...The Russian foreign ministry is obviously orchestrating and facilitating this process," Georgian re-integration minister, Temur Yakobashvili, said. "All this is being done to derail the peace process in which the international community is becoming increasingly involved."

"As in previous years, Moscow deems the month of August propitious for staging military incidents in Georgia, while European officials take their vacations," Vladimir Socor, an analyst for US-based NGO, Jamestown, said.

Georgia is strategically important to the European Union due to plans to bring in extra oil and gas from Central Asia through the South Caucasus to reduce energy dependency on Russia, with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline already supplying Caspian oil to Europe since 2006.

Georgia, a former Soviet republic, has also started inching toward NATO membership and hopes to eventually join the EU.

But its tiny South Ossetia enclave - home to between 40,000 and 70,000 people - has the potential to spark wider instability. Russia has given passports to most of the inhabitants and maintains its own "peacekeepers" in the hotspot, while rebels in Georgia's larger breakaway territory of Abkhazia have already pulled out of German-sponsored conflict resolution talks due to the South Ossetia skirmish.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in July floated a new peace plan for Abkhazia and Georgia that might inject a greater European presence into the current negotiating format, which is dominated by Russia and has done little to calm tensions over the past few years.

Also last month, EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby explained the EU would not deploy soldiers in Georgia until hostilities calmed down and all parties, including Russia and the rebel leaders, requested an EU force.

"But at the same time, if there is a request, if there is an interest I believe that the European Union, given the importance that we pay to Georgia and to this region, would be willing to consider making a contribution," he said.

Some analysts believe the situation is beginning to thaw after some 15 years of tense ceasefire, as separatist authorities weigh up the option of semi-autonomous rule in a prosperous Georgia against continued isolation and increasing Russian domination.

"That's why they have quietly reached out to Western capitals. An EU high representative, with a significant staff and peacekeeping contingent, would likely be welcomed by the Abkhaz," Brussels' Institute for Strategic Studies experts Borut Grgic and Alexandros Petersen wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

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