Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 117

Intensive discussions are underway at the OSCE’s Vienna headquarters on the decisions and documents to be adopted by the organization’s year-end conference. Moscow has already successfully ruled out from the principal final document, the Political Declaration, any reference to Russia’s 1999 Istanbul Commitments to withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova. The Russians also oppose any reference to that matter in the “regional statements.” The OSCE normally adopts such statements at its year-end conferences. Last year at Maastricht, however, Russia vetoed them at the last moment because they mentioned, among other things, the troop-withdrawal obligation.

Thus, the OSCE’s effectiveness as an institution can be seen descending one rung below that of the United Nations. While the UN is also incapable of enforcing its own resolutions, it can at least cite them ritualistically year after year, and they form a generally accepted reference material. The OSCE, however, is no longer able even to cite its own key resolutions without Russia’s consent, let alone to call for their implementation in countries targeted by Moscow.

The OSCE was last able to cite those 1999 Commitments regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia two years ago at Porto. The Porto 2002 statement “support[ed] the desire of the parties to complete negotiations” on that matter. This formulation concealed the fact that the 1999 Commitments had stipulated the completion of those negotiations in 2000. The OSCE’s 2002 statement set no deadline, took no position about the ongoing breach, and gratuitously credited Russia with a desire to withdraw its troops from Georgia. The Maastricht 2003 year-end conference made no statement.

The OSCE’s 2004 Bulgarian chairmanship is considering Russia’s suggestion that South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti be invited to the year-end conference. South Ossetian attendance would signify a major breakthrough in Moscow’s quest for international acceptance and recognition of its post-Soviet creations, such as the CIS collectively and the secessionist exclaves individually. The OSCE’s 2004 Chairman-in-Office, Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Solomon Passy, has made a few tiny steps in that direction, for example by using the formula “the Moldovan leadership and the Trans-Dniester leadership” (implying equal status) and by addressing the CIS countries as a group and calling for OSCE-CIS cooperation (implying political recognition of the CIS).

South Ossetian attendance at the year-end meeting seems, however, a non-starter at this point. Moscow will be content to have raised the issue and then make incremental steps, such as that proposed in the UN Secretary General-OSCE Bulgarian Chairmanship joint document on cooperation: there, Georgia and South Ossetia are referred to as “the sides” that should settle the conflict among themselves. This formula also implies coequal status, and it militates against Georgia’s proposal to internationalize the conflict-settlement negotiations.

Georgia proposed earlier this year that a high-level international conference with full-fledged Western participation be convened in October 2004 in Bulgaria (as OSCE presiding country) to discuss the political settlement of the South Ossetia conflict; specifically, South Ossetia’s political status as a part of Georgia. However, Russia has vetoed the proposal, insisting that discussion of all issues including political ones be confined within the Russian-controlled Joint Control Commission. The “five-sided” JCC includes Georgia, South Ossetia, Russia, Russia’s North Ossetia, and OSCE, thus ensuring multiple Russian representation directly and indirectly, isolating Georgia, and excluding the West. (That format, and the Russian-vetoed proposal to internationalize it, is almost a mirror image of Moldova’s situation).

As a quick substitute for the proposed international conference, certain key OSCE officials now propose convening a meeting on South Ossetia in the “five-sided” JCC format, upgrading it to the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, to discuss political issues including South Ossetia’s status. This proposal reflects last-minute hopes to rescue the OSCE’s year-end conference from the embarrassment of having no results to show for the third consecutive year. The proposal is harmful to Georgia on three counts: First, it would empower the JCC to discuss political and status issues, thus bowing to Russia’s position; whereas Georgia has all along insisted that the JCC is only an armistice-supervising technical body and that political issues must be discussed in a truly international format. Second, raising the JCC’s level would only boost Russia’s advantages, because it controls that body. Third, launching a political negotiating process in the JCC would make it harder, not easier, to propose an international conference afterward, because Russia and others could wave it off as redundant.

The OSCE’s Border Monitoring Operation (BMO) on the Georgia-Russia border is one of the organization’s rare accomplishments. Staffed by unarmed military officers from many countries (including Russians), the BMO is watching the Chechen, Ingush, and Dagestani sectors of that border from the Georgian side. The BMO is crucial to shielding Georgia from Russian accusations that Chechen and international “terrorists” are operating out of Georgian territory. Its on-site reporting does not substantiate such accusations, thus disproving them implicitly. Moreover, the BMO has confirmed some of the violations of Georgian airspace by Russian military planes, as reported by Georgia, though invariably denied by Russia.

Moscow now threatens to veto the continuation of the BMO and thus to force its termination as of December 31, possibly under the guise of cutting its funding. Russia first served official notice of this in June in the OSCE’s Permanent Council, and has repeated it regularly since then. Moscow’s arguments seem mutually contradictory and therefore contrived. While charging that “terrorists” cross that border, it wants at the same time to evict the border monitors. Without the BMO, Georgia would be left face-to-face with Russia. The threat appears designed to intimidate Georgia and slightly raise the OSCE’s anxiety level in the run-up to the year-end conference. However, it seems unlikely that Moscow would risk a confrontation with Western countries by vetoing the BMO. More likely, Russia would ultimately accept a time-limited continuation of the BMO and, in return, demand concessions on other issues at the year-end conference.