On June 30 the OSCE officially terminated its Mission in Georgia, which had for 17 years monitored the situation in and around South Ossetia. Russia forced the OSCE to close the Mission by vetoing the prolongation of its mandate in the OSCE’s Permanent Council. Also on June 30 the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which had for 15 years monitored the situation in and around Abkhazia, began evacuating its personnel, following Russia’s veto against that Mission’s mandate in the U.N. Security Council (EDM, June 2, 12, 17).
Moscow wants no international eyes and ears in the occupied territories, where the traces of ethnic cleansing are still fresh and the Russian armed forces are building bases. Russia has therefore removed the presence of international organizations from the two territories. Moscow found it easy to do so, as it had already demonstrated in 2005 by forcing the closure of the OSCE’s Border Monitoring Mission (BMO), which was operating outside the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict theaters. Consequently, there is no international presence on the Georgian side of the Georgia-Russia border along its entire length. Just across that border, Russia began on June 29 large-scale military exercises, exacerbating a perceived threat of invasion into Georgia’s interior (Interfax, June 29, 30).
The OSCE’s presence in South Ossetia (like that of UNOMIG in the Abkhazia conflict) was chronically ineffective, bordering on a farcical pretence, and doomed to this predicament by Russian veto power within the OSCE throughout the years before its final demise. The Mission and the organization itself could not even speak out, let alone act, on the South Ossetia conflict without prior Russian approval under the OSCE’s consensus-based system. Through that system, Russia was able to shape the Mission’s mandate, modalities of operation, and political stance, as well as the OSCE’s collective positions in what passed for negotiations on the South Ossetia conflict.
The Mission was allowed to maintain a grand total of eight unarmed observers, only half of whom were usually deployed in the field at any one time, prior to the August 2008 war. The mandate barred them from entering most of South Ossetia, particularly the area between the Roki Tunnel and the Java military base, where Russian and proxy forces could freely introduce and station arms and troops out of sight. The OSCE monitors, unarmed and quaint-looking in yellow berets on patrol, were powerless to deal with unlawful troop and arms movements, often missing such movements altogether for lack of adequate equipment and manpower.
At the OSCE’s Vienna headquarters, Russia made certain to keep this Mission under-resourced and even succeeded in micromanaging it. For example, Moscow vetoed the employment of Moldovans by the Georgia mission and of Georgians by the OSCE’s Moldova mission. It interfered with the purchase of Jeep-type vehicles by the Georgia mission and never allowed it to fulfill the impossible dream of acquiring a helicopter. In essence, the Mission was disabled from performing its duties even under its limited mandate at the technical level. It was also disabled politically from calling violations that occurred in full public view in dangerous situations. For example, it kept silent when Moscow sent thousands of armed paramilitaries to Tskhinvali, in an amply televised show of force (2004); and it half-closed its eyes technically (blinking politically) when Russian warplanes repeatedly intruded into Georgian air space from 2005 onward. Moscow simply brushed aside proposals to allow OSCE monitors to watch the exit from the Roki tunnel, traditional avenue for Russian unlawful troop movements and arms trafficking into Georgia.
The Mission’s reputation began improving under its last chief, the Finnish diplomat Terhi Hakala, who tried hard against the odds to fulfill the mission’s mandate. Russia’s August 2008 invasion cut short this effort, however, forcing the OSCE to withdraw its monitors from the Russian-occupied territory, never to return there. In a bizarre development, some grist to Moscow’s war propaganda originated from within the Mission, such grist being subsequently replayed as news that was fit to print in some Western media.
From the invasion to date, Moscow offered the OSCE two options: either to use its Georgia mission for legitimizing South Ossetia’s "independence" or to see the mission terminated by a Russian veto. On August 18, 2008, Russia approved the OSCE Finnish Chairmanship’s initiative to deploy 20 extra monitors, but barred them from Russian-occupied South Ossetia, confining them instead to the Georgian-controlled side of the ceasefire line. Shortly afterward Russia "recognized" South Ossetia (as well as Abkhazia) and demanded that the OSCE Mission be split into two separate missions, with separate mandates under separate OSCE decisions: one mission in Tbilisi to operate in Georgia’s interior, responsible mainly for issues unrelated to the conflict; and another mission to operate in Tskhinvali, treating South Ossetia’s authorities as sovereign to all intents and purposes in that territory. Russia insisted that the OSCE negotiate such a mission’s mandate and modalities of its operation with the South Ossetian authorities, thereby accepting them as legitimate and quasi-recognizing them. The OSCE collectively could not have gone along with such proposals. Russia blocked the routine prolongation of the Mission’s mandate when it expired on December 31, 2008. It only approved a six-month technical extension, to allow more time for negotiations until June 30. But Moscow never relented from its position until the end (OSCE Permanent Council documents, June 4, 18).
The remaining international presence in Georgia is that of the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM) since October 2008. Unlike the OSCE’s now-deceased mission, the EUMM is not subject to Russian veto power. The EUMM’s presence is crucial as a trip-wire and eyewitness to possible Russian or proxy military attacks. Russia bars the EUMM from the occupied territories, however, confining the mission to the Georgian-controlled side of the ceasefire line. The European Union treats Georgia’s territory as a single whole within the internationally recognized borders and has been seeking Russian consent to EUMM’s access over the ceasefire line.
When ministers of foreign affairs of the E.U., NATO, and OSCE member countries met on the island of Corfu on June 28, they raised this issue with their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. French Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner told journalists, "I just asked for one millimeter of progress in giving the E.U. observers access to the other side of the line. It has not been accepted" (AFP, June 28).