Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 15

With every passing week, Russia is coming closer to success in its efforts to eliminate the international presence on the Georgian side of the Georgia-Russia border. Having forced the termination of the OSCE’s unarmed Border Monitoring Operation (BMO) as of January 1, Moscow now resists all the proposals for a follow-up or substitute presence.

Moscow ‘s timetable is geared to excluding any such presence from Georgian territory along the Chechen, Ingush, and Dagestani sectors of that border, by late April-early May. At that point, when ice and snow begin to melt in the high-altitude mountain passes, Moscow will predictably unleash a barrage of accusations that Georgia allows “Chechen and international terrorists” to cross over, and on that excuse will almost certainly demand to undertake surveillance of the Georgian side of the border and Pankisi inside the country. More broadly, it will be in a position to exploit Georgia ‘s vulnerability to Russian threats in demanding concessions on unrelated issues, e.g., Russian military bases.

The BMO had shown Moscow ‘s anti-Georgian accusations to be baseless. Consequently, Russia turned down all the replacement options that were officially or informally suggested at the OSCE this week, including those tabled at the Permanent Council’s January 19 session. These proposals appeared designed primarily to elicit Russian consent (indispensable in the OSCE’s system), rather than to ensure an effective and timely international presence along the border. Discussions continue on three options:

1) Resurrecting the BMO in downsized form. The OSCE’s British-led Mission in Georgia (which ran the BMO) has proposed cutting the BMO’s annual budget from $15 million to $9 million, with corresponding cuts in personnel and patrolling activities. This plan would seem to take seriously Moscow ‘s argument that the BMO was too expensive for the OSCE’s budget. Yielding on this issue not only misses Moscow ‘s real goals in axing the BMO, but it also compromises the effectiveness of any resurrected operation. A downsized BMO will be wide open to Russian claims that it is incapable of detecting “terrorists,” and it will soon be terminated as irrelevant.

2) Sending an Assessment Team (including Russians) to determine the BMO’s effectiveness and usefulness. The United States and Georgia proposed this in the Permanent Council’s January 19 meeting. The European Union collectively, the GUAM countries collectively, and Turkey supported the proposal in varying degrees. Russia (despite U.S. insistence that it “seriously consider” the proposal) dismissed it as a “non-issue,” the BMO being “ineffective” and finished as far as Russia is concerned. At Russian insistence, the OSCE’s Conflict Prevention Center has drawn up the phase-out schedule, whereby BMO activities are discontinued, all detection equipment is stored, and all personnel is to be evacuated from the border area within a 20-week period. Washington ‘s proposal would waste precious time — now measured in weeks — instead of using that time for organizing a viable replacement to the BMO.

3) Training Georgian Border Guards to Replace the BMO. This idea is favored by France , Germany , and a few other countries, on the grounds that international border monitoring is an irritant to Russia and therefore counterproductive. They suggest that a group of up to 20 instructors (including Russians) under OSCE aegis should train Georgian border guards, preferably at a location distant from the border, and preferably not using BMO equipment (thus deferring to Russia on these details). This option is one of the byproducts from EU discussions in December in Brussels , which had meant to signal to Moscow that the EU might step in to replace the BMO if Moscow kills it. However, France and Germany distanced themselves from that idea, thus mixing the EU’s signals to Moscow . Some other EU countries also seem inclined for the moment to stick to an OSCE framework, rather than create an EU framework for border monitoring in Georgia . It is generally recognized in Brussels that the EU has been caught wrong-footed on this issue, without contingency plans or serious analysis of the situation, despite Moscow ‘s warnings throughout 2004 that it was going to axe the BMO by December.

Another alternative, not yet officially under discussion, is however the only viable option: a substitute BMO undertaken by several willing countries, under EU aegis if possible, or simply at Georgia ‘s request under international law.

4) Replace BMO with Willing Countries. While debate in the EU is ongoing, and consensus unlikely to develop in a timely manner, the only viable alternative seems to be replacing the BMO with a similar operation by an ad-hoc group of willing countries, including EU member and aspirant countries and other Georgia-friendly states. The other three options are clearly ineffective and would lack credibility. The “willing countries” option can easily be funded by the EU, referring to the BMO’s $15 million budget as a baseline. Georgia ‘s strategic value to the West and the stabilization of its democracy are worth infinitely more than that amount.

Beyond Georgia , broader principles are at stake. First, it is necessary to stop Russia ‘s practice of implanting its troops across internationally recognized borders, as it has done in Trans-Dniester, in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian border sectors of Georgia , and now seeks to do in three more border sectors on the new excuse of “anti-terrorism.” Second, Moscow ‘s notion that a neighboring country may not invite foreign monitors — and unarmed ones at that — on its national territory along the border, is a notion that must be shown to be unacceptable. And, third, if the EU is serious about validating its ambitions — indeed its professed vocation — as a “soft-security” provider, the place and time to begin is in Georgia , before the snows melt.

(Documents of the OSCE Permanent Council session, January 19)