Commentary: Illegitimate Peacekeeping — A Sphere-of-influence Tool

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 82

The existing Russian “peacekeeping” operation for Abkhazia is a legacy of the 1993 Russian military intervention in Georgia, the subsequent military advance to the Inguri River, and the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian plurality of Abkhazia’s population by the Russian-backed Abkhaz minority. International organizations and Western powers have yet to deal with this legacy.

Headquartered in Sukhumi, the Russian force operates in the security zone on both sides of the Inguri River, and to a limited extent in the Kodori Gorge. Russian troops rely mainly on a system of static control points, from which they patrol mostly on foot (vehicles use precious fuel). The contingent’s strength hovers around 2,200, all on contract. This force is not neutral, and its doctrine and training are far removed from internationally approved peacekeeping standards. In essence, the force is not a peacekeeping instrument, but rather a military extension of Russia’s policy in the region and an ingredient to sphere-of-influence building.

Politically, the Russian operation is based on the Russian-drafted 1994 Moscow agreement on disengagement of Georgian and Abkhaz forces. However, Russia placed a CIS facade over its operation, to lend it a “multilateral” appearance and thus cast Moscow in the role of “peacekeeper for the CIS space.” This is why, at Russia’s initiative, the 1994 agreement’s stipulations were carried over into decisions of CIS summits during the ensuing years. As CIS summits are often disorderly, it was never clear how many CIS countries actually authorized this Russian operation. Russia can claim to be implementing a CIS peacekeeping mandate, but the CIS has no authority to issue such mandates, and CIS decisions (at summits or otherwise) have no legal force.

CIS approval of the Russian operation was subject to reconsideration at six-month intervals, and Georgia could exercise its sovereign right to declare the operation terminated. However, Moscow often signaled that it would not honor Georgia’s right in this matter. Time and again, Georgia declined to prolong the operation for another six months, but stopped short of calling for its end. Tbilisi consistently offered to legalize a Russian peacekeeping operation for the long term, on the condition that Russian troops provide security for Georgian refugees’ repatriation to Abkhazia, beginning with the Gali district. However, Moscow never agreed to such a solution at the expense of its Abkhaz clients. Toward the end of his rule, President Eduard Shevardnadze gave up the six-month-renewal procedure, apparently consenting to an open-ended Russian operation.

While resisting any genuine internationalization of its “peacekeeping,” Moscow would welcome a limited CIS-ization of this operation in practical terms. It has unsuccessfully sought token troop contributions and funding for the operation from CIS countries. For its part, Georgia has sought to diversify the existing Russian operation by adding at least small units from other CIS countries. This would have been no substitute for internationalizing the operation, but international indifference forced Tbilisi to approach Ukraine and Kazakhstan for peacekeeping troops. However, Kazakhstan wanted no such responsibility, and Ukraine would only participate under a UN mandate. Russia ruled out any meaningful Ukrainian role, and the UN would not mandate a superficially revamped Russian operation.

The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) makes hardly a dent into Russia’s peacekeeping monopoly. Present in the area since 1994, UNOMIG currently deploys 118 unarmed military observers, slightly under its authorized strength of 135. Its composition is highly heterogeneous (currently with officers from 23 countries) and its commander is traditionally from a Muslim country. UNOMIG observers depend entirely on the Russian force for their security. The observers patrol only in daytime in the same areas where Russian “peacekeepers” operate.

A joint UN-OSCE human rights office, a component of UNOMIG, is based in Sukhumi. Unlike military observers, the human rights office may operate anywhere in Abkhazia. However, this small office makes no perceptible impact, and it has not worked out a human-rights dimension to conflict-settlement. It also has failed to establish a presence in the Gali district as Georgia requested.

UNOMIG’s presence is useful in that Georgia is not left face-to-face with the Russian troops. However, the observers are no substitute for an international and civilian peacekeeping operation, which is a prerequisite to unfreezing the negotiations toward political settlement.