Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is due this week to begin monitoring Georgia’s border with Russia opposite Chechnya. This action–which comes not a moment too soon–should relieve some of the Russian pressure on Georgia and, specifically, discourage a possible intrusion of Russian forces into Georgia from Chechnya. That danger looms while Russian propaganda portrays Georgia as colluding with “international terrorism” and harboring Chechen fighters on Georgian territory. As Russian forces advance inside Chechnya, pushing Chechen fighters and civilian refugees toward the Georgian border, the danger increases that the Russians might cross into Georgia, under the pretense of hot pursuit, with the real goal in mind of bringing the country to heel.

On December 15 in Vienna, the OSCE’s Permanent Council decided to take up monitoring of the Georgian-Russian border on its Georgian side in the Chechen sector. The Permanent Council responded to an urgent appeal of the Georgian government. The head of the OSCE’s Mission in Tbilisi, Jean-Michel Lacombe, announced on December 16 that “some European” countries have pledged to contribute funds and personnel to the monitoring operation. The border will be observed by the OSCE from helicopters as of now and by twenty monitors on the ground as of early January. Their task is to watch for violations of the border and report any such cases immediately to OSCE’s headquarters. Russia has been invited to join in the monitoring operation.

In practice, the monitors will serve as a trip wire and a moral-political deterrent to a possible Russian incursion or preparations for one. While the OSCE’s Permanent Council–the official recipient of the information–operates under the veto rule and therefore cannot be counted on to act promptly in a crisis, Western countries in the OSCE will be able to use the monitors’ information for a prompt response.

The OSCE’s initiative has demonstrated its usefulness even before formally getting underway. On December 13 and 15, the OSCE’s Mission in Tbilisi organized helicopter trips to the border by diplomats stationed in Tbilisi. Their findings helped disprove the Russian “sighting” of armed Chechens in the Georgian border village and garrison base of Shatili. The diplomats reported seeing those armed Chechens escorting refugees on their side of the border.

On December 17, Russian assault helicopters and fighter-bomber planes flying in from Chechnya committed multiple violations of Georgian airspace, also firing eight projectiles five kilometers inside Georgia near Shatili. Georgian television showed film of the incident, the Georgian government protested officially and Moscow denied the facts. But British and American diplomats were in Shatili that day and witnessed the incident, and a British diplomat was cited as stating that he would present one of the spent Russian shells “to the Russian ambassador in Tbilisi as a souvenir.” Russian planes and helicopters have repeatedly violated Georgian airspace in recent months, sometimes acknowledging the violations but more often denying them. Some Russian helicopters have intruded as far as ten kilometers inside Georgia, a depth suggesting intent to intimidate, rather than pilot error.

Meanwhile, the Georgian government, in several official statements and a message to the United Nations Security Council, expressed concern over Moscow’s latest accusations, one of which has Tbilisi hosting talks between the senior Chechen official Movladi Udugov and emissaries of international terrorist Osama bin Laden. Georgia, while dismissing such allegations as fabricated, is deeply concerned that they may serve–as Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said–that they “aim to drag Georgia into war” (Itar-Tass, Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Iprinda, Georgian Television, Radio Tbilisi, December 17-20; see the Monitor, October 5-6, 21, November 8, 12; and the Fortnight in Review, October 22, November 19, December 3).