The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and the UN itself are collateral casualties of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and “recognition of Abkhazia’s independence.” The diplomatic negotiating process, which is scheduled to open on October 15 in Geneva, may well see UNOMIG’s demise and, thus, the UN’s removal from Abkhazia—the only post-Soviet conflict zone where Russia until now has tolerated the world organization’s presence.
The price of that tolerance, however, has been the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) passive acquiescence in Russian “peacekeeping” and a Russian-controlled negotiating format from 1994 to date. Now Moscow is raising that price by seeking some form of acceptance of Abkhazia’s “independence” with UNOMIG’s continuation. UNOMIG’s mandate is up for a routine six-month prolongation by a UNSC resolution, coincidentally also on October 15.
In a report to the UNSC made public on October 6, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested procedural technicalities for keeping UNOMIG alive at least temporarily. His report stops short, however, of taking issue with Abkhazia’ s “independence” and the Russian “recognition”; and it keeps silent about the reasons behind the UN’s failures even to attempt undertaking crisis-management and conflict-resolution in the Abkhazia conflict (UNSC S/2008/631 press release, October 6; www.unomig.org).
The UNOMIG prolongation rituals, staged every April and October for 14 years, produced UNSC resolutions blessing the “CIS peacekeeping operation,” although that operation was purely Russian, clearly with annexation rather than peacekeeping in mind, contradictory to the UN’s standards for peacekeeping operations, and (at least from 2002 onward) lacking even a mandate from the CIS. The CIS never had authority to issue peacekeeping mandates in the first place, but the UN continuously bowed to this usurpation of a UN function.
U.S. Secretaries of State have gone along with this charade every six months from 1994 to date, as part of Security Council resolutions to prolong UNOMIG’s mandate. For its part, Russia approved the routine prolongations on terms that severely limited UNOMIG’s capacity for movement and observation and left it fully dependent on the Russians for its own security.
Moscow would like to continue using UNOMIG and the UN itself, if they continue with passive acquiescence in Russia’s policy. According to Western diplomats familiar with preparations for the October 15 meetings, Russia would approve the mandate prolongation on the conditions that UNOMIG is confined to the Georgian side of the Georgia-Abkhazia “border” and that any UN presence on the Abkhaz side would carry the title of UN mission in Abkhazia, working directly with that “independent state.” If accepted, such conditions would imply UN and international deference to Russia’s border-drawing and protectorate-creation by unilateral military force.
Some West European chancelleries intimately involved with those preparations would go along at least partly with such conditions, for the sake of preserving some UN role in the process and on the ground. From their perspective, keeping a UN project alive may seem to be a goal in itself, irrespective of Russia’s successful manipulation of the UNSC approval process and emasculation of UNOMIG during all these years. Other Western diplomats, however, would not pay that ever-rising price to Russia at the expense of Georgia and international law.
For his part, Ban Ki-moon proposes a roll-over (temporary continuation of the UNOMIG mandate, pending a new Security Council resolution) on October 15 for another four months, with subsequent reconsideration of UNOMIG’s fate.
The Mission’s 150 unarmed observers became hapless witnesses to Russia’s invasion of Abkhazia and further advance into Georgia in August. Even as witnesses, however, they were poorly informed about the Russian troop movements, as Ban Ki-moon’s October report concedes. It could not have been otherwise, given the mandate limitations on UNOMIG’s own movements and equipment. Dependent, moreover, on Russian and Abkhaz protection of its personnel’s physical safety, UNOMIG basically got out of the way during the Russian invasion and in its aftermath. Ban Ki-moon’s report admits that UNOMIG was “denied freedom of movement, threatened with weapons,” and otherwise intimidated in many cases by Russian and Abkhaz forces, forcing UNOMIG to desist from patrolling and observing key locations at key moments.
UNOMIG left its post in the upper Kodori Valley on August 9, promptly upon Abkhaz notification that “Abkhaz” forces were about to seize the area from the Georgians. The invasion force then looted that post and the Abkhaz took it over and are still holding it, while UNOMIG has not resumed regular patrolling. UNOMIG then watched at least some of the Russian armored columns pouring through its areas of responsibility and advancing into Georgia’s interior. Those areas of responsibility include the security zone (where no troops are allowed, other than “CIS peacekeepers” up to 3,000) and the restricted-weapons zone (where no heavy weaponry is allowed even for “peacekeepers”). According to UNOMIG’s admittedly incomplete information, however, 9,000 Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles, as well as bomber planes, took part in the August operation.
Ban Ki-moon’s October report refers to Russian forces in every instance as “CIS peacekeepers” without hesitation; labels the conflict as “Georgian-Abkhaz” even after Russia’s invasion and seizure of Georgian territories; and seems to bend over backward in claiming that “CIS”-UNOMIG “cooperation at the leadership level remained close and effective, especially during critical moments.”
The Secretary-General thus continues to accept the terms of reference that Russia imposed on the UNSC as part of the price for tolerating UNOMIG. But Moscow is now upping the ante, demanding some form of Security Council acceptance of Russia’s invasion and Abkhazia’s secession, through the wording of a new UNOMIG mandate and corresponding arrangements on the ground.