Save Georgia’s Peace Mission
Lawrence Sheets is Caucasus Project Director of the International Crisis Group. The opinions expressed are his own.
The truce that ended last summer’s war between Russia and Georgia may be more or less holding for now, but the structures keeping the peace are crumbling due to Russian pressure and Western acquiescence.
Last August, Moscow and Tbilisi fought a short but vicious war over South Ossetia, a region of less than 50,000 people that Moscow now recognizes as an independent state but which the rest of the world regards as part of Georgia. Intense diplomacy was crucial in ending the fighting, as European Union mediation, under the French Presidency, helped compel Russia to put its pen to a truce agreement.
Unfortunately, practically before the ink was dry on the document, Moscow was blatantly refusing to fulfil the terms of the ceasefire.
Not only has it refused to withdraw several thousand additional troops it sent into South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia — another region Russia alone recognizes as independent — it has also flatly refused access to international monitors. And in April, Russia announced it was sending even more troops to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as if to flaunt its noncompliance with the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement of August.
Now, Moscow has taken aim at the only major international organisation with a solid track record in Georgia, the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE has been in Georgia for more than 15 years: monitoring unstable areas in and around South Ossetia, promoting conflict resolution, supporting minority issues, helping lay the foundations for democracy and the rule of law, and criticizing electoral fraud. In South Ossetia it even facilitated economic rehabilitation projects between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians until the August war.
Last Month, OSCE member states met in Vienna to work on a Greek-sponsored compromise to keep the OSCE in Georgia, one of the final steps in thorny negotiations which have been going on since January. But Moscow shot down the Greek proposal, which had already been heavily amended to try to address Russian concerns, by preventing it from coming up for a vote.
There are several possible reasons why Russia wants the OSCE out of Georgia, one of the Organization’s biggest and most important missions.
Moscow could be reluctant for the world to see what has gone on inside South Ossetia under its eight-month military “liberation” activities.
Russia’s huge military might did not prevent South Ossetian militias from driving about 25,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes. In many cases local militias burned, looted, and even bulldozed villages as Russian troops stood by, in actions that Human Rights Watch has called “crimes against humanity” and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe termed “ethnic cleansing”.
By closing the OSCE in Georgia, Russia also adds another front in its long-term diplomatic endeavour to undermine the efficiency of the OSCE as a whole. Since 1975, the Organization has helped promote European peace and security. But for years now, Moscow has been unhappy with the group’s focus on human rights, media freedom and fair elections as the best way to encourage stability. Russia has used the political tools available to it as a member state to delay and obstruct the Organization’s smooth functioning. Moscow has, for example, repeatedly delayed the passage of the OSCE’s annual budget.
The OSCE has taken a decade and a half to build a strong mission on the ground in Georgia. It has been one of the few institutions with any capacity to foster some sense of stability. The European Union and the West generally have essentially closed their eyes to Russia’s violations of its ceasefire obligations, under an agreement bearing the name of the French President. The vast majority of OSCE member states must show they will not acquiesce to a single country’s attempt to diminish the efficiency of the OSCE.
Time is now short, but it is not too late to save the OSCE mission in Georgia. Its mandate is set to expire in six three weeks, so there is still time to save it if enough member states of the OSCE act resolutely. In the first instance, the mission should at least be allowed to continue working in territory currently controlled by Tbilisi. Moscow can have no reasonable arguments against that. If Georgia is as unstable as Moscow claims, then there are compelling reasons to keep the OSCE there, even in the Russian logic.
A vigorous diplomatic response, led by the EU and the US, should make clear to the Kremlin that its refusal to allow the OSCE to continue its valuable work in Georgia further damages Russia’s credibility as an international partner. Moscow will then need to demonstrate whether it is seeking regional stability or simply engaging in geopolitical posturing.