Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 146

The OSCE’s failed year-end meeting in Sofia on December 6-7 also marked its conclusive failure as a would-be security organization. Russia demonstrated that it could kill the OSCE’s one and only security operation of proven value, the Border Monitoring Operation in Georgia. At the same time, Moscow readily prolonged the life of the OSCE’s observer group in South Ossetia precisely because of that group’s ineffectiveness, while blocking any meaningful reinforcement of that group.

On South Ossetia, the Russians vetoed the final political declaration’s text that would have “encouraged reinforcement of the OSCE team of observers.” That text was weak in the first place, because the European Union and the OSCE’s Bulgarian Chairmanship had hoped for Russian consent. They therefore preemptively turned down Georgian proposals that had called for OSCE monitoring of the Roki tunnel and would have defined “demilitarization of the ‘conflict zone’ as a first step toward demilitarization of the entire region” of South Ossetia. The Russians and Ossetians want to limit demilitarization to the small ‘conflict zone,’ while continuing to operate unimpeded and unmonitored in most of South Ossetia.

Starved of manpower and equipment, the OSCE team of observers is in no position to even notice, much less respond to, Russian and Ossetian military activities and rampant trafficking in South Ossetia. At the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, Russia had “agreed in principle” to a purely symbolic increase of the observer team. Nothing came of this at Sofia, however.

Moscow continued to reject proposals for creation of an international negotiating format on South Ossetia. The existing, “five-sided” format, akin to that in Moldova, is stacked overwhelmingly against Georgia and it excludes the West. This format, the Joint Control Commission (JCC), is a technical organ for cease-fire monitoring. Moscow would prefer to endow it with political functions as a negotiating mechanism because of its lopsided composition. Georgia seeks to establish a new mechanism for political negotiations, with full-fledged U.S. and EU participation. Russia easily defeated these efforts in the run-up to the Sofia meeting. At Sofia, it vetoed even the feeble text that recommended holding a high-level JCC meeting to discuss political settlement issues “with the assistance of the international community.” Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov warned, “The OSCE must support, not devalue, let alone undermine, the existing negotiating formats.”

The EU’s collective position, as expressed by Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Bot, stated: “We urge all parties involved to continue searching for ways to bridge differences and bring an end to these conflicts. The EU hopes that progress can be achieved in Georgia and Moldova in the near future.” This statement was tantamount to: In the absence of EU engagement or interests, the EU just hopes that the problem would disappear soon.

In a French press interview during the Sofia conference, Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Salome Zourabichvili commented on “the [West] Europeans’ hesitation between indifference and fear to engage. The largest countries — Germany, France, Britain — are not the driving force . . . . The EU has to conceive a policy toward Russia, Ukraine, and the [South] Caucasus — the EU does not really have a concept on such a policy — [and] should use its good relations with Russia to serve such a policy” (Le Monde, December 7).

The OSCE’s Border Monitoring Operation (BMO) is watching the Chechen, Ingush, and Dagestani sectors of the Georgia-Russia border from Georgian territory. By reassuring Russia that the border is safe, the BMO in effect shields Georgia against ongoing Russian threats to pursue alleged “Chechen and international terrorists” into Georgian territory. Throughout the year, therefore, Moscow had threatened to force the BMO’s termination by vetoing the renewal of its mandate and/or cutting its funding. The OSCE, dependent on Russian consent for survival as a European security actor, hushed up the threat to the BMO, instead of exposing the blackmail.

At the Sofia meeting, Russia made clear that it could kill the BMO as of December 31, 2004, if it chooses to do so. It vetoed the final political declaration’s text that would have “acknowledged the Border Monitoring Operation’s very significant contribution to stability and confidence and urged extension of its mandate.” Moreover, Russia announced that it would use its veto power against funding the BMO from January 1, 2005. Meanwhile, it is holding the OSCE’s entire budget for 2005 hostage to a Russian veto, awaiting the organization’s response to Russian-proposed “reforms.”

Zourabichvili, called on the conference to prolong the BMO, “One of the most successful missions of our organization, and one that makes a tremendous contribution to Georgia’s security.” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also insisted in his speech, to no avail, “The Border Monitoring Operation is contributing to stability on a sensitive border, and its mandate should be extended for another year.” Following Russia’s refusal, the European Union in a somewhat resigned concluding statement still “attach[ed] great importance to a continued, albeit reduced, Border Monitoring Operation.”

Although the BMO demonstrably enhances border security, Russia wants it removed from its perimeter. To that end it falsely alleges that the BMO is “ineffective,” and assails Georgia with accusations that it allows “terrorists” to operate across that border. At the Sofia conference, however, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov suddenly changed the argument. He now claimed that the BMO has fulfilled its tasks, managed to improve the situation on the border, is therefore no longer needed, and is too expensive in any case. Moreover, Russian and Georgian border guards and intelligence services cooperate well with one another, and can henceforth protect the common border on a bilateral basis, without an international presence. While more sophisticated than Moscow’s crude accusations, Lavrov’s line similarly seeks to remove that international presence, so that Georgia would be left to face Russia one-on-one.

Created in 1999 to monitor the Chechen sector of the Georgia-Russia border, the BMO was expanded in 2001 to the Ingush sector and in 2002 to the Dagestani sector. Operating at altitudes of up to 3,500 meters above sea level, it deploys 140 to 150 border monitors in the warmer months of the year, and approximately 70 monitors in the cold months when the mountain passes are blocked by snow and ice. The monitors are unarmed military officers from approximately 30 countries, including Russia. Using sophisticated optical and communications equipment, they observe and patrol the border in helicopters, on foot, and from peaks. They provide detailed information, instantly transmitted to all 55 member countries, on all cross-border movements in either direction by humans and pack animals.

Moscow resents the BMO for three main reasons: First, the impartial and effective BMO does not substantiate — thus indirectly disproving — Moscow’s allegations about armed groups using Georgian territory for operations in Russia. Second, the BMO has confirmed Russian air raids over Georgian territory, despite Russia’s denials. Third, the BMO’s presence relieves the political pressure that Russia can bring to bear on Georgia through those casus belli-type accusations. The BMO’s presence, in effect, deters the Russian military from threatening to move into Georgian territory under “anti-terrorism” pretenses. The BMO, described officially a confidence-building operation, in fact plays this deterrent role as well.

Russia knows that it would antagonize the United States and EU by killing the BMO outright. Before and during the Sofia meeting, the EU indicated that it considers the possibility of undertaking itself a similar operation on that border, Georgian consent being sufficient, in the event that Moscow axes the BMO. The Russians have responded that they object to any Western presence opposite their border. They may well, just before December 31, consent to a reduced BMO for another year, in return for a Western concession on some other issue, and repeat this game next year. They clearly should prefer whittling down the BMO, extracting Western concessions each time instead of terminating the BMO in one fell swoop.

The BMO’s survival in a reduced form would diminish its effectiveness and credibility. It would thereby rob Georgia and its Western friends of a crucial counter-argument to Moscow’s ongoing propaganda about armed groups using Georgian territory. This could at the very least increase the political and psychological pressure on Georgia and, at worst, could provide Moscow with pretexts to impose its presence on Georgian territory in place of a departed or seriously weakened BMO.

Moscow has now demonstrated that it can hold the OSCE generally, and the BMO in particular, hostage both politically and financially. The security of Georgia cannot be entrusted to an organization whose security functions depend on Russia’s sufferance. Moldova’s fate has shown the consequences of entrusting a country’s vital security interests to the OSCE. Georgia’s Western allies and partners must now announce that they support the EU’s idea to undertake a border-monitoring operation there.

(Documents of the OSCE’s 2004 year-end ministerial conference, Vienna and Sofia, December 1-8, 2004).