Commentary: Osce Not Coping In South Ossetia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 78

In August, a group of international analysts and journalists led by the Jamestown Foundation visited the Georgian-South Ossetian “conflict zone” at the height of tensions fueled by Russian military activities there. The OSCE Mission contributed to the visit’s success by graciously providing briefings, transport, and escorts.

The OSCE, involved in South Ossetia since 1994, clearly lacks the means to monitor the situation on the ground or promote negotiations toward a political settlement of the conflict. Russia, wielding its veto power in the OSCE, has confined the Mission to a symbolic monitoring role, and made it a bystander in the desultory settlement talks. Without Russian consent, this organization can neither speak up nor act effectively on South Ossetia. A handful (literally) of unarmed monitors cannot compensate for the imbalance in the peacekeeping force, where the Russian and Ossetian components are far stronger than the Georgian component.

The military monitors’ evident dedication and professionalism are being defeated by their lack of resources in the field. The OSCE has authorized only four military monitors for South Ossetia (one stationed there and three on standby in Tbilisi). Last month, Russia refrained from vetoing the addition of two more monitors, for a total of six (three to be stationed in Tskhinvali and three in Tbilisi). However, at least ten times that number would be required to effectively monitor the tiny conflict zone, much less all South Ossetia. Both Russia and South Ossetia constantly conduct unlawful military activities outside the conflict zone as well.

Monitors stationed in Tbilisi, an hour’s drive from the closest entry point into South Ossetia, are only marginally effective at best. They are unable to detect unlawful military activities or to respond to them promptly, and their physical distance gives violators plenty of time to scramble. Illegal activities can easily be concealed or completed by the time monitors arrive on the scene.

The monitors’ equipment is absolutely inadequate. They do not even have a helicopter to help detect violations on the ground or at least to respond when others report such violations. Nor do the monitors have equipment to detect Russian military planes entering Georgia’s airspace. In OSCE practice, the manpower and equipment of the organization’s field missions are subject to minutely detailed negotiation at the Vienna headquarters, and thus to Russia’s veto power. Russia’s recent consent to adding two monitors was presented as a diplomatic triumph at the OSCE; such spin can again be expected if Russia approves a symbolic helicopter for monitors in South Ossetia.

The geographic scope of the monitoring is another vexing issue. The Mission claims that its mandate, drafted mainly by Russia in 1994, only authorizes monitoring of the small conflict zone. Georgians argue that this restriction is either self-imposed or easily accepted by the OSCE, as the mandate does not explicitly preclude monitoring of South Ossetia as a whole. In fact, Russia and South Ossetia conduct constant military activities in the unmonitored area, which is legally Georgian territory. They hold exercises, stockpile arms and equipment, and funnel military supplies from Russia to illegal South Ossetian forces around Tskhinvali. Russian planes freely transit the unmonitored area before reaching the conflict zone and beyond it into Georgia.

Deep inside the unmonitored area, Russia’s military controls the exit from the Roki tunnel, the main channel for contraband deliveries from Russia to South Ossetia. The Georgians seek joint or international control of that exit. Russia refuses and the OSCE keeps silent. In sum, the unmonitored area creates a Russian springboard inside another country’s territory, violating international law, while the OSCE system enables Russia to block efforts to monitor the area.

During June and July of this year, Georgian troops spotted and in some cases, intercepted Russian and Ossetian clandestine shipments of helicopter-borne missiles (160 in one shipment), anti-tank projectiles, Grad rocket launchers, and other military truck convoys slipping into the conflict zone. The Georgians made these intercepts thanks to a temporary increase in their troop deployment, only to scale back deployment in August. The few, poorly-equipped OSCE monitors did not detect any of those shipments, although in April two monitors stumbled on an Ossetian armed group that carried seven howitzers. The unarmed monitors were forced to leave the scene and had to summon Russian peacekeepers; by the time these arrived, the howitzers had already “vanished.”

The OSCE Mission keeps silent on Russian violations of Georgian airspace over the conflict zone and beyond, because it can rarely see such activities. When asked to comment on Georgian-detected airspace violations over the same area, the Mission says that it can only comment on what it observes itself. Meanwhile, Russian delegates at the OSCE in Vienna makes certain that the Mission can see very little by starving it of personnel and equipment.

Moreover, the Mission has declined to examine or comment on military activities beyond the conflict zone. Only a few kilometers into the unmonitored area, South Ossetian and Russian forces enjoy a sanctuary around Java. There, Russian Army officers train local South Ossetian troops. A few kilometers further to the north, Ossetian troops maintain an old Soviet helicopter base and recently took delivery of three Russian multi-purpose helicopters. Still further to the north, no one is monitoring possible shipments of military supplies and personnel into South Ossetia though the Roki tunnel.

The OSCE kept silent in July when approximately 1,000 “volunteers” from Kuban, Abkhazia, and Trans-Dniester arrived in South Ossetia via Russia to fight against Georgia if necessary. The operation qualified as transnational terrorism and was favorably reported by Russian state media. The volunteers assembled in Tskhinvali (where the OSCE has its field office) and held joint military exercises around Java with South Ossetian forces under command of Russian officers, using armor and artillery unlawfully supplied from Russia. Those events were shown on Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian television channels. The OSCE Mission, however, turned a blind eye and then declined to say anything on grounds that it can only comment on what it actually observes.

The OSCE’s weakness in South Ossetia reflects the organization’s structural deficiencies, not the staff’s professional integrity. The situation requires new monitoring and negotiating mechanisms with direct, hands-on Western participation.