Russia’s August 26 official recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “independent states” will change nothing on the ground, let alone the international legal status of the two territories. With or without such “recognition,” Russia did as it pleased in both territories for the last 15 years and will continue doing so, as long as Georgia remains weak and its Western partners fail to contain Russian expansionism.
On the eve of “recognition,” Russia prevented the OSCE from performing its monitoring responsibility in South Ossetia, the springboard for Russian troops into Georgia’s interior. Moscow has enjoyed a cat-and-mouse game with the OSCE for a decade in South Ossetia, but its latest move undercuts an agreement concluded as recently as August 19 with the OSCE’s incumbent Finnish Chairmanship.
The OSCE Mission to Georgia had fielded a grand total of nine, unarmed military monitors (MMOs) in recent years to observe the implementation of the ceasefire in South Ossetia and report on violations, which this small and poorly equipped team often missed. The last three MMOs left South Ossetia shortly after the August 7 outbreak of the Russia-Georgia war. As Russian forces entered South Ossetia massively after that date, and population displacements ensued, the OSCE’s Finnish Chairmanship and Western member countries had a good case to make for augmenting the OSCE’s monitoring presence in South Ossetia.
Moscow, however, seeks de facto international acceptance of its seizure of Georgian territory adjacent to South Ossetia, in the so-called buffer or “security zone,” which Russia claims to occupy under the French-brokered armistice. Moscow tries to associate the OSCE with the buffer zone scheme by having this international organization monitor that zone, signifying de facto acceptance of that arrangement within the Russian-drawn demarcation lines.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, “The Russian side supports the deployment of a considerable number of additional OSCE observers in the security zone” (Interfax, August 19). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried retorted, “There is no [such thing as] security zone” (Guardian, August 20).
Following intense negotiations between the OSCE’s Finnish chairmanship and Russia, the organization’s Permanent Council authorized on August 19 an increase in the number of OSCE military monitors in Georgia. In the consensus-bound Permanent Council, approval of a decision means having Russia on board. Under the August 19 Decision, the expanded monitoring’s goal is “full implementation of the six principles included in the agreement proposed by the French and Russian presidents.“
To that end, an additional 20 Military Monitoring Officers shall be “deployed immediately, in areas adjacent to South Ossetia.” Up to 80 MMOs may be added in a follow-up stage, but that shall be subject to a new decision by the Permanent Council regarding modalities of the MMOs, to be proposed by the OSCE’s Chairmanship “without delay.” Those modalities shall also apply retroactively to this batch of 20 MMOs (Permanent Council Decision no. 861, August 19, 2008).
This means, first, that Russia has managed to avoid any serious monitoring by the OSCE in South Ossetia, at a time of unprecedently heavy Russian military presence there, and while material evidence of mass ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia can still be recorded, before it is suppressed. Second, it means that Russia will confine the OSCE’s MMOs to the buffer zone and seek OSCE compliance with the Russian occupation’s rules and regulations there. Thirdly, approval of another batch of “up to 80” MMOs is subject to Russia’s veto power in the Permanent Council.
Procedurally, the added 20 MMOs would apparently operate without a formal mandate, and certainly without approved modalities. This situation increases Russian leverage over the group. Given the current situation on the ground, however, the OSCE Chairmanship was almost certainly justified in seeking to deploy these MMOs as fast as possible, rather than negotiate at length with the Russians about mandate and modalities for this first additional batch.
Sharing that sense of urgency, the United States and the European Union approved the deployment despite its unsatisfactory terms while filing major interpretative statements. On the EU’s behalf, the presiding country France recorded the “wish of the EU” for these observers to be deployed rapidly in South Ossetia within Georgia. The United States “expects” the same, along with full access for MMOs to check the withdrawal of military forces to their pre-August 7 positions — i.e., their return to Russia.
Both the EU and the U.S. underscore in their interpretations that the MMOs’ deployment shall not affect the terms of the “international format” envisaged in point five of the armistice agreement; and that it shall not preempt the establishment of further international mechanisms. In other words, the monitoring mission is no substitute for an international peacekeeping and negotiating format regarding the South Ossetia conflict.
The OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Stubbs, similarly “hopes” that the MMOs would “very soon” be ensured safe and free movement “throughout Georgia” (i.e., into South Ossetia) and humanitarian assistance corridors would equally soon open (i.e., by Russian troops or in their wake) (OSCE Permanent Council documents, Chairmanship Press Release, August 19). OSCE “hopes” for Russian cooperation are chronically unrequited, however.
Meanwhile, the OSCE has the right to deploy again to South Ossetia the eight remaining MMOs of the nine who were based there until early August, under the old mandate. Keen to restore that presence, Stubb indicated while visiting Georgia that Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has assured him that Russia would not impede the MMOs’ reentry there (Civil Georgia, August 22). The OSCE Mission has a field office in Tskhinvali and stationed up to five of its MMOs there, prior to the August 7 outbreak of hostilities.
On August 25 the first batch of MMOs arrived in Tbilisi as scheduled, en route to South Ossetia and the nearby Russian-occupied area of Georgia. On the following day, however, the Russian military stopped them near Gori and did not allow them to proceed any farther. This group of MMOs left Georgia today, but the OSCE is determined to persist.