Moscow Wants the OSCE To Negotiate Directly with South Ossetia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

In the wake of the OSCE’s year-end meeting, Russia is continuing to block the return of OSCE monitors to a South Ossetia ethnically cleansed of its Georgian population and occupied by massive Russian forces in breach of the armistice. The Russians have prevented the mission’s monitors from entering South Ossetia since the August invasion. The mandate of the existing OSCE Mission to Georgia expires on December 31/January 1. Any renewal needs to be negotiated with Russia and is subject to Russian veto under OSCE rules. Thus, the negotiations’ clock is rapidly ticking in Russia’s favor.

Russia would consent to a small, ineffective OSCE presence, if the mandate and parameters of that presence could be construed as recognition of South Ossetia and its authorities. The OSCE’s Finnish chairmanship seeks to negotiate a renewed presence of the organization’s monitors in South Ossetia. Most OSCE countries support that goal, but the OSCE’s own system enables Russia to defy the organization with impunity.

The OSCE’s chairman, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Stubb, avoided a frank discussion of this issue at the Helsinki year-end conference on December 4 and 5, in the misplaced hope of rescuing the conference from failure, which ensued regardless (see EDM, December 3, 4, 10).

The chairmanship did, however, schedule a visit by its special envoy on the protracted conflicts, Heikki Talvitie, to Moscow on December 8 to discuss possible terms of re-entry of OSCE monitors to South Ossetia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stonewalled the discussion, adding a dose of ill will by relegating the issue inappropriately to the ministry’s CIS Affairs department. Moreover, “representatives of South Ossetia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs” participated in the discussions, according to Russian MFA sources (Kommersant, November 9).

On December 11 the United States and Canada proposed in the OSCE’s Permanent Council the immediate dispatch of an OSCE group to monitor the humanitarian and security situation as well as natural gas supplies in South Ossetia (Permanent Council documents, December 11). That proposal, however, could only become a decision with Russian consent.

The OSCE Mission to Georgia has handled the South Ossetia conflict since 1992. Based in Tbilisi, and maintaining a field office in Tskhinvali since 1997, the mission was authorized to employ a grand total of nine unarmed military monitors to patrol the “conflict zone,” only five of them within South Ossetia. The mission was pathetically undermanned and under equipped because Russia vetoed proper resources from the OSCE in Vienna. The monitors left Tskhinvali at the start of the fighting in August this year and were never allowed by the Russians to return there. On August 19 the Permanent Council decided with Russian consent to authorize the dispatch of 20 additional monitors. Russia, however, unilaterally denies them access to South Ossetia, confining their presence to Georgia’s interior (see EDM, August 26). Stubb tried hard in August and afterward to negotiate the issue with Moscow but to no avail.

Moscow is trying to maneuver the OSCE into an arrangement that would imply acceptance, or some form of de facto recognition, of South Ossetia’s separation from Georgia and the Tskhinvali authorities’ “independence.” Russia’s “recognition” of South Ossetia since August 26 makes it possible for Moscow and Tskhinvali to demand that South Ossetia be treated as a sovereign state. In correspondence and other communications to the OSCE’s Chairmanship from September until now, Tskhinvali leaders have listed the conditions under which they would accept a renewed OSCE presence in South Ossetia.

Their conditions include: 1) The parameters of that presence to reflect South Ossetia’s “independence”; 2) The existing mandate, dating from the 1990s and centered on monitoring the Georgian-South Ossetian armistice, to shift toward “facilitation of interethnic peace and tolerance and humanitarian issues” in South Ossetia (meanwhile, Tskhinvali authorities do not allow Georgian expellees to return); 3) Conflict-resolution and peacekeeping functions to be excluded from any new mandate, as the conflict has already been “resolved” from South Ossetia’s point of view and Russian forces guarantee South Ossetia’s “independence” under bilateral agreements; 4) Any OSCE mission in South Ossetia to be named accordingly and to exist separately from the Tbilisi-based OSCE Mission to Georgia; 5) Operating modalities of a mission in South Ossetia to be negotiated with the “government of South Ossetia;” and 6) Candidates for postings with an OSCE mission in South Ossetia to be vetted by Tskhinvali authorities.

Russia’s envoy to the OSCE, Anvar Azimov, supports Tskhinvali’s position in the organization’s Permanent Council. Azimov has described the OSCE Mission to Georgia and its mandate as “hopelessly outdated, not in keeping with new realities.” He has called for negotiations on a new, separate mission, the arrangements for which “need to be agreed upon directly with the authorities of the Republic of South Ossetia” (Permanent Council documents, November 13, 20).

The OSCE Mission to Georgia based in Tbilisi will lose its mandate to operate in South Ossetia and probably its existence, unless a new mandate is negotiated to Russia’s satisfaction by December 31. The mission’s cessation could, however, be a blessing in disguise if its tasks related to South Ossetia can be taken over by the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM).