Responding to Georgia’s call for the replacement of Russian “peacekeeping” troops by international police (see EDM, July 20), Moscow now accuses Georgia of a premeditated intent to launch military operations in South Ossetia and/or Abkhazia. Moreover, Russia threatens to intervene with its troops on the side of its protégés in that eventuality. Russia’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense — including the two ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Ivanov — as well as leaders of the governing party, Kremlin advisers, and the state-controlled mass media are repeating these inflammatory accusations and threats on a daily basis.
Moscow knows full well that Tbilisi has no intention to resort to force and no capabilities even remotely comparable to those of Russian and proxy forces. Thus, the overall purpose of this agitprop campaign is not to deter Georgia from any military actions. Rather, the war scare aims to deter the West generally and the United States in particular from actively supporting Georgia’s call for replacement of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. Moscow’s message suggests explicitly that removal of its “peacekeepers” would ipso facto lead to military hostilities, and implicitly that such a development could convulse U.S.-Russia relations.
Such a message also seems designed to encourage the tendency among some Western officials to focus on “restraining” Georgia, instead of concentrating on overcoming the Russian-imposed status quo in this region of strategic interest to the West. As long as conflict-resolution here yields to other perceived priorities in the U.S. and European Union’s dialogues with Moscow, the unlawful Russian military presence in Georgian territories and their de facto incorporation into Russia are being tacitly tolerated. Hands-on Western initiatives toward political settlements have repeatedly been deferred, and in the meantime the onus often falls on Georgia to “behave,” instead of falling on Russia to observe international law.
Along with the “peacekeeping” operations, Moscow insists on preserving the negotiating formats it has itself created, and in which Russia plays “facilitator” or “mediator” despite its own actual role as a direct party to the conflict. Its demand for retaining “the existing mechanisms” is a central one to its ongoing war-scare campaign.
Russia’s current campaign also aims to frighten the Abkhaz and Ossetians, deepen their alienation from Georgia, and exacerbate the psychological hurdles in the follow-up phases of negotiations, which Moscow knows will ensue despite its own inflammatory propaganda. Moreover, this campaign seeks to validate Russia’s claim to protection of its “citizens” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia through all means, including military ones if it deems necessary.
Russia’s unilateral handover of its citizenship wholesale to the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has no validity in international law, inasmuch as Georgia is the internationally recognized sovereign there. However, no international organization, Western country, or group of countries has thus far challenged Russia’s claim to intrusive protection of its “citizens” in another country’s territory. By creating a war psychosis, Moscow would like to divert pressures toward Georgia to refrain from political challenges to the status quo. By the same token it seeks to deflect any demands on Russia to cooperate in changing this status quo.
For now, Western policies on this issue seem hamstrung by unnecessary constraints and dilemmas. The European Union’s July 20 collective statement reflects this situation. On the positive side, it “welcomes plans to send a UN fact-finding mission regarding the possible deployment of an international police force to Abkhazia as soon as possible.” Furthermore, the EU is “worried by [Russia’s] recent closure of the only recognized border crossing between Georgia and Russia” and calls for the reopening of that crossing [Zemo Larsi, the Russian closure of which seeks to compel acceptance of the Russian-controlled Roki crossing]. On the other hand, however, the EU statement counsels “mutual confidence among the parties,” “urges the parties to make full use of existing negotiating mechanisms . . . [and] invites all parties to start dialogue on the basis of the existing mechanisms, in order to explore the possibilities for improvement” (www.consilium.europa.eu, July 20). These formulations equate the sovereign, democratic Georgia with the Russian-installed de facto authorities; define the latter as “parties” although theses conflicts are Russia-Georgia interstate conflicts; and endorse the Russia-dominated “existing mechanisms” despite the decade-old failure to find any “possibilities for improvement.”
For his part, President Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday again reassured Georgia’s allies, the Abkhaz and Ossetian populations, and Russia: “Our aim is not to create artificial confrontation, we are not kamikazes or irrational people. Georgia is a very quickly developing country. A country in this position does not want chaos and problems. Our aim is to create the kind of peace process that would prevent any chaos or any kind of serious provocation” (Rustavi-2 TV, July 20).