While breaching its six obligations under the French-brokered armistice agreement, Russia is using the same agreement’s loopholes to justify the continuing military occupation and vandalization of Georgian territories (see EDM, August 13, 18).
Moscow demands the creation of a Russian-controlled “security zone” farther south from South Ossetia, inside Georgian territory that had never been contested. Russia has introduced this demand as a precondition to a hypothetical start of a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the rest of Georgia. The Russians want a territory reaching 20 to 25 kilometers beyond the administrative border of South Ossetia, jutting toward Tbilisi (Interfax, Itar-Tass, August 15-17).
With the armistice agreement’s collapse, French diplomatic prestige is on the line, and the President’s credibility at stake. Nicolas Sarkozy and his closest advisers apparently seek to buy at least a semblance of Russian compliance even at the cost of further Georgian concessions to Moscow.
The French agree with the creation of an exclusive Russian military zone, but would limit it to three kilometers or “several” kilometers, according to French representatives. They also quibble over the nature of Russia’s military presence in such a “security zone”. Russians want to introduce fixed military outposts there and include a key stretch of the east-west national highway in the “zone,” which would enable them to interdict traffic between the two halves of Georgia (as is now the case under the “armistice”). The French would want the highway to remain outside Russian reach and to limit the Russian presence to patrols, rather than fixed posts, in the “security zone.”
Beyond such details, the Russians have apparently maneuvered the French into a situation of drawing lines across Georgia’s map together, resulting in Russian gains irrespective of French intentions. And with France currently holding the European Union’s presidency, the EU seems at risk to share the French embarrassment over such concessions to Moscow.
Paris argues that conceding such a “security zone” is a necessary price to pay for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the rest of Georgia. This argument suffers, however, from three weaknesses: First, it was Sarkozy’s sweeping acceptance of Russian “additional security measures” that enabled Russia to demand this “security zone.” Second, it seems far-fetched to believe that this concession would buy Russian compliance with the Sarkozy-mediated agreement on troop withdrawal. And, third, giving Russia a piece of Georgian territory beyond South Ossetia would trigger Russian demands for a similar arrangement to involve Abkhazia, where the Russians are de facto creating a “security zone” beyond Abkhaz-controlled territory at the expense of Georgia.
On August 16 the French Presidential Administration applied pressure on Georgia to concede. The Elysee Palace circulated the text of an August 14 letter to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by Sarkozy, insinuating that the would-be security zone was included in the Sarkozy-brokered agreement, and demanding imperatively: “I ask that you confirm the agreement that you gave me and that you announced publicly in Tbilisi while affixing your signature at the bottom of the six-point agreed protocol that I had myself signed as a witness and guarantor in the name of the European Union. [Russian] President Medvedev yesterday assured me that your signature would lead to the withdrawal of Russian forces pursuant to the accord concluded.”
This peremptory tenor bespeaks Sarkozy’s frustration with Moscow’s stonewalling and his attempt to save the situation by goading Georgia into further concessions. Sarkozy wrote that the would-be zone would extend “a few kilometers” from South Ossetia into the rest of Georgia, would be “patrolled” by “Russian peacekeeping forces at the level of existing agreements,” would not include Gori or any large town, and that “special arrangements must be defined to guarantee free movement and traffic along the Georgian highway and railway.”
The French presidential administration added its own comment, referring to a “letter accompanying the ceasefire document” and purportedly defining the would-be security zone (Communique, August 16).
As it turned out, Medvedev’s “assurances to me” (Sarkozy) on troop withdrawal proved worthless, even after Saakashvili had signed the Sarkozy-Medvedev document under the duress of Russia’s military invasion. The French president certainly has no practical means (and no mandate either) to be a “guarantor in the name of the EU” for Georgia vis-à-vis Russia. Delusional “guarantees” are no compensation to Georgia for yet another territorial loss through the Russian “security zone” scheme. The French communiqué does not say who wrote and signed the purported letter on that subject. And any “special arrangements” with Russia to “guarantee” transportation across Georgia could in fact only “guarantee” Russian control of such transportation.