Kidnapped Georgian Schoolboys Remain in Russian Custody

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

As the Jamestown Blog reported on November 9, four Georgian schoolboys Giorgi Romelashvili, Aleko Sabadze, Victor Buchukuri and Levan Khmiadashvili had been kidnapped by Russian occupational forces in Georgia’s Tskhinvali region from the neighboring village of Tirdznisi, which is under Georgian control and well beyond the zone of Russian occupation. The kidnapping occurred on November 4, almost one month ago, and despite the Georgian government’s diplomatic efforts the teens remain in Russian custody.

The only available channel of communication with the boys has been through the International Red Cross which involves only letters delivered a few times by Red Cross officials between the Georgian teens and their desperate parents in Tirdznisi.

The Russian news agency Regnum reported on November 5 that the four Georgians were arrested on November 4 on charges of “violating the state border and illegally possessing and carrying four hand grenades and explosives.”

Later, on November 19, the Russian media reported that the Georgian teens would spend two months under arrest in accordance with the law of the Russian Federation.

Georgian officials have discussed this most recent and outrageous case of kidnapping with various international organizations and at their bilateral meetings with representatives of other nations requesting their assistance to free the kidnapped boys. Their fate has been one of the topics during the unprecedented visit of ambassadors from all 27 EU member states to Tbilisi on November 12-1 and the issue was also raised by Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze when he spoke last week in Paris with his French colleague Bernard Kouchner.

The EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) – an organization that is denied access by the Russians to the occupied Georgian territories even though its mandate covers Georgia within its internationally recognized border – became involved from the beginning. In its press release, the EUMM expressed “profound concern over the detention of four under aged Georgian citizens,” but instead of requesting their immediate and unconditional release, appealed “to the de facto authorities in South Ossetia to find common ground with the relevant Georgian structures in order to bring the present situation to a prompt manner and satisfactory resolve.”

The EUMM is of course well aware of the fact that the “four under aged Georgian citizens” were persecuted under the Russian law and by the occupational forces, but it failed to publicly acknowledge this fact and demand their release from the Russian Federation, rather than from the nonexistent “de facto authorities in South Ossetia.”

On November 27, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg arrived in Tbilisi and his meetings with various Georgian officials as well as those with the authorities in Tskhinvali will continue until December 4.

Georgian parliamentarians both from the ruling party and the opposition had severely criticized him for not doing enough for the release of the kidnapped schoolboysin particular and not issuing a special statement for almost one month after their kidnapping.

Both Georgia and Russia are members of the Council of Europe and despite the fact that this organization has already several times acknowledged that the Russian Federation is in breach of the August 2008 Russo-Georgian ceasefire agreement, mediated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, little, if any, action has been taken to punish Russia for violating Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The first attempt by Hammarberg to enter Tskhinvali on November 29 failed after he was stopped on the “border” by Russian forces and, according to the Georgian media, several shots were fired from the city.

The next day Hammarberg was more fortunate and managed to hold talks in Tskhinvali, but nonetheless came back to Tbilisi empty-handed.

According to the Russian media, the authorities in Tskhinvali would agree to the release of the kidnapped Georgian schoolboys if Georgia frees several criminals who currently serve long prison sentences in Georgian prisons and are accused of burning Georgian villages and of other crimes committed during the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008. No wonder, the Georgian response to this type of “exchange” has been negative so far.

Moscow distances itself from the kidnapping, maintaining all along that the issue should be solved between “South Ossetia” and Georgia. Many analysts believe that by paying high-profile visits to the occupied town of Tskhinvali the international organizations are willingly or unwillingly playing into Russian hands and instead they should request directly from Moscow the release of the kidnapped Georgians and the full observation of its international obligations, including those outlined in the ceasefire agreement.