September 2, 2008
By Quentin Peel
Exactly who is fooling whom in Georgia? Russia claims to have its troops there as “peacekeepers”, although they were an important party to the conflict. Now the European Union intends to send 200 civilian peace “monitors”, although they will not be allowed into the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where mass expulsions of ethnic Georgians have been taking place.
Monday’s decision by EU leaders in Brussels demands Russian troops return to where they were on August 7, the day when hostilities broke out in South Ossetia. At that time, the vast majority were in Russia, many in the garrison town of Vladikavkaz.
At least, that is where they were supposed to be. If they were already inside South Ossetia on August 7, then the Georgian claim they attacked Tskhinvali that night in response to a Russian invasion will be proved true. Russia maintains its tanks only entered on August 8.
The trouble is, there is not a hope in hell Russia will pull its troops out of South Ossetia now. It has recognised the territory’s independence and promised to reinforce its military security. The South Ossetians have officially requested the establishment of a full-scale Russian base there.
Nor will Russia pull out many of the estimated 9,000 troops it poured into Abkhazia, the other secessionist region that has now declared independence.
The EU leaders decided to “postpone” negotiations about a new partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia until the troops are back where they were on August 7. That is what the original ceasefire agreement, negotiated by Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, with Dmitry Medvedev, his Russian counterpart, clearly stated. Mr Sarkozy flies back to Moscow on August 8 to insist on the point.
If the EU is serious, it would mean the partnership talks would have to be postponed indefinitely, if the Russian troops do not go home. Or will the EU simply allow Russia to define the terms of its disengagement?
The best Mr Sarkozy can hope for is that they pull out of the so-called “buffer zone” they have set up around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, deep inside undisputed Georgian territory. That is the only area that 200 unarmed EU monitors will be allowed near. The same is likely to be true for another 100 military monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Yet mass ethnic cleansing seems to have been taking place in the buffer zones and secessionist territories. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 138,000 people have fled south from the two territories. There is no reliable information from inside South Ossetia. The numbers suggest the vast majority of ethnic Georgians have been expelled.
OSCE monitors were told last week they could not enter even the Russian buffer zone as their safety from roaming bands of Ossetian militia could not be guaranteed. “Hard to understand why, if they are supposed to be in charge,” an OSCE diplomat said.
Russian officials refer to their troops as “peacekeepers”. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, said on Tuesday there were no “Russian troops” left in the Georgian buffer zones, only “peacekeepers”. Whatever they are, they have failed to stop the ethnic cleansing.
By sending in the troops and tanks, and recognising Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence, Russia has changed the reality on the ground. Moscow insists negotiations to put monitors on their territory must be conducted with the independent governments. No one else in the OSCE or EU recognises them as independent.
As for the ceasefire’s final point – that international discussions will be held “on the arrangements for security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia” – Russia has simply pre-empted them by its own “arrangements”. Any international negotiations seem an exercise in futility.