Using its veto power in the OSCE, Russia has carried out its threat to terminate the mandate of the organization’s Georgia Border Monitoring Operation (BMO) as of December 31. This unarmed international mission, patrolling the Georgia-Russia border on Georgian territory, has played a key role in shielding Georgia against Russian threats to pursue alleged “Chechen and international terrorists” into Georgian territory, e.g. in Pankisi. Russia cast its veto on December 30 in Vienna, at the OSCE Permanent Council’s last session of 2004 (RFE/RL, December 30; Itar-Tass, December 31).
Moscow has long tried to build a case for military intervention in Georgia, or at least for Russian deployment on the Georgian side of the border, through those accusations. The BMO’s internal reports to the OSCE helped to disprove the accusations; moreover, the monitors reported on some of the Russian air raids over Georgian territory, despite Russian denials. Consequently, Moscow wants to eliminate the BMO and to exclude any international presence, so that Georgia would be left to face Russia one-on-one.
Without an international presence, Russia would be emboldened to: a) try to impose its own presence on the Georgian side of the border; b) exert political and psychological pressure on the Georgian government, so as to extract concessions on other issues, under the threat of “anti-terrorist” action inside Georgia; c) divert attention from the issue of Russian troops and bases in Georgia, as Moscow has already done with some success by forcing the now-phony issue of “terrorists in Pankisi” to the top of the agenda with Tbilisi and Washington.
Contrary to some ongoing speculation, Russia’s move to terminate the BMO has nothing to do with Kremlin frustrations over its recent defeat in Ukraine and a presumed quest for compensatory satisfaction on the Georgia front. Russia had threatened to veto an extension of the BMO throughout 2004. Analysts who interpret Russia’s move as an understandable reaction to the Orange Revolution and recommend demonstrating “goodwill” by giving in to Moscow on the Georgia border monitoring issue miss this key point.
Moscow now proposes forming a purely bilateral Russian-Georgian “border police” force, albeit with Western financing, in place of the BMO. Inasmuch as the BMO operated by definition on Georgian territory, the Russian-proposed substitute could be used for deploying Russians on the Georgian side of the border.
For public consumption, Russia argued throughout the year that the BMO has been “ineffective,” as well as too costly to the OSCE budget, and must therefore cease. In reality, the BMO proved highly effective, and its cost was borne by Western countries. Shortly before the OSCE’s year-end conference, Moscow changed its argument. It now claims that the BMO has fulfilled its tasks, managed to improve the situation on the border, and is therefore no longer needed. In the latest twist to its case, Moscow now contends that Russian and Georgian border guards and intelligence services cooperate well with one another, and can henceforth protect the common border on a bilateral basis, without an international presence (Foreign Affairs Ministry statements, Itar-Tass, December 30, 31; January 1).
Both sets of assertions contradict Moscow’s own propagandistic accusations that Georgia tolerates “Chechen terrorists” crisscrossing that border. Those accusations will probably continue as a means of pressuring Georgia into accepting a Russian-Georgian operation, instead of the BMO or some other international operation.
Moscow has repeatedly presented its key argument that it cannot tolerate any international presence, even this unarmed one, near Russia’s borders. This contention seems to impress the French and German governments, whose position is now bringing confusion to the European Union’s collective position on this and other issues.
Border security is one of the key dimensions to the EU’s evolving security and neighborhood policies. Consequently, Georgia asked the EU to undertake a border monitoring operation in Georgia, should Russia kill the BMO. The consent of Georgia would be sufficient, and that of Russia is not required for this. The U.S. State Department supports the idea. The EU seemed to give it favorable consideration and held a pre-Christmas meeting in Brussels to send a signal of intent to Russia. However, the Franco-German position thwarted that signal and emboldened Moscow. The issue remains under consideration in Brussels.
The OSCE’s outgoing Bulgarian and incoming Slovenian chairmanships informally suggested a compromise with Russia, whereby the BMO’s mandate would be extended for six months only, and its personnel and funding deeply cut. The idea was designed to “save” not the BMO, but the OSCE institutionally and politically through “consensus” with Russia at the expense of Georgia, international security, and legal principle. The BMO’s survival in a reduced form would have diminished its effectiveness and credibility, robbing Georgia and its Western friends of a crucial counter-argument to Moscow’s propaganda about “Chechen terrorists” using Georgian territory. Moscow might then have been justified in arguing that the BMO had become ineffective. Moreover, Russia would almost certainly have reopened the issue as a bargaining card at the six-month interval.
In Russia’s view, the BMO is obligated to stop its patrolling and reporting as of January 1, 2005, start packing immediately, and phase itself out within a few months. Meanwhile, Moscow seems to be hinting that it might accept some compromise in return for Western concessions on several of the following Russian demands: a) creating a common OSCE-“CIS” [in fact, Russian-Belarusian-Central Asian] system of monitoring and evaluating elections and setting up a joint working group for that purpose; b) holding a high-level seminar on military doctrines; and c) calling an international conference on energy supplies and security. The United States and other Western countries, unwilling to turn NATO and EU functions over to the OSCE, let alone to abdicate from democratic standards, have until now resisted those Russian initiatives in varying degrees.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to block the adoption of the OSCE’s 2005 budget, underscoring the OSCE’s vulnerability to Russian blackmail. The organization maximizes its vulnerability by maintaining secrecy, hoping at each step for backstage compromises with Russia, thus encouraging the latter’s use of “salami tactics.” The OSCE would be better placed to resist the blackmail by exposing it publicly. The BMO was this organization’s one and only successful undertaking in the security sphere. Without the BMO, or with an emasculated version of it, the OSCE’s credibility as a security actor — already compromised over Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia, Karabakh, the CFE Treaty, and Istanbul Commitments — would descend to nil.
On the positive side, however, the BMO’s and indeed the OSCE’s demise as a security actor can at last open the way for direct Western involvement — in this case, a border monitoring mission in Georgia under EU aegis. The United States can keep a low profile and contribute a portion of the funding for such a mission. Russian personnel can be invited to participate, as they did in the BMO. The time for action is short: a substitute operation must be in place before the ice and snow start melting in the high-altitude passes in April. Given the EU’s characteristically slow decision-making process, the United States could help jump-start a political initiative in Brussels for a EU-sponsored border monitoring operation in Georgia.
At stake is not only Georgia’s security and sovereignty. The larger issue is Russia’s behavior toward neighboring countries generally. Giving in to Russia over a genuinely democratic, pro-American, EU-aspirant country, and accepting a Russian veto over its neighbor’s border security arrangements, would embolden Moscow into pressuring other countries as well.