Russia to OSCE: Recognize South Ossetia or Get Out

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 242

Russia is threatening to run the OSCE out of South Ossetia at the end of the year. Moscow will only relent if the OSCE recognizes the Russian-installed authorities as legitimate and treats Russian-occupied South Ossetia as an essentially sovereign state.

The OSCE has maintained a monitoring presence in South Ossetia continuously since 1993 as part of the organization’s Mission to Georgia, which is based in Tbilisi. That mission’s mandate requires a routine prolongation by January 1 at the latest. Russia threatens to veto the prolongation, in which case the OSCE would also lose its presence in South Ossetia.

Moscow’s goal, however, is far more ambitious. Its optimal solution would be for the OSCE to maintain a symbolic presence in South Ossetia, at Moscow’s mercy, in return for which the OSCE would essentially recognize the faits accomplis created since August by Russia’s invasion. The Russians also need some time to clean up the still-obtrusive traces of their destruction of Georgian villages.

Whether the OSCE maintains its Tbilisi-based mission or not is of little significance from Russia’s standpoint. Russia wants the OSCE to separate its field presence in South Ossetia from the Mission to Georgia and to operate that field presence as a new Mission, in close coordination with the Tskhinvali authorities and Moscow.

Russia has now proposed a draft mandate to the OSCE for an OSCE Mission in South Ossetia (Russian Delegation, “Draft Decision Mandate of [an] OSCE Mission in Tskhinvali,” OSCE Permanent Council, December 18). This includes some demands already presented to the OSCE by the South Ossetian authorities (see EDM, January 11) but expands and details them, raising the pressure as the countdown ticks on the mission.

Under Russia’s proposal, the OSCE would officially “take into account the substantial political changes in the region since August 2008” in establishing a new mission in South Ossetia. This would be unrelated to the organization’s Mission to Georgia and would not inherit the latter’s prerogative to maintain an OSCE presence in South Ossetia.

The proposed new mandate refers to South Ossetia at every step as “the host country” and introduces the notion of a “border between Georgia and South Ossetia.” The mandate would require the OSCE’s mission to conduct “all activities in coordination with the host country” and to “maintain contacts with the Russian military contingent.” The mission would also facilitate economic reconstruction in South Ossetia and assist South Ossetian authorities in handling interethnic relations.

The proposed mandate does not make any reference to monitoring the military situation or implementing the ceasefire. This was the core task of the OSCE’s field presence in South Ossetia from 1993 until 2007, as part of the mandate of the OSCE Mission to Georgia, which expires on January 1, 2009, unless renewed. Russia, however, is tacitly terminating the military monitoring by separating the proposed new mission from the existing Tbilisi-based mission and eliminating that monitoring from the proposed Tskhinvali-based mission’s mandate.

The mission’s staff would be limited to nine (a chief and eight international staff members, as was the case prior to the invasion), and the OSCE would no longer be free to choose them: the international staff would be appointed upon the consent of South Ossetian authorities in each individual case. South Ossetian authorities would also be entitled to cap the number of the mission’s locally hired auxiliary personnel.

Moreover, the mission’s detailed organizational provisions would be specified in a separate agreement between the OSCE and the authorities of South Ossetia. The mandate itself would be subject to prolongation at six-month intervals upon the consent of the same “host country” and the approval of the OSCE Permanent Council. This would turn the mission into a hostage to Russia on two levels: through Moscow’s proxies in Tskhinvali and its veto power within the OSCE in Vienna.

As OSCE diplomats undoubtedly realize, those South Ossetian authorities who would liaise with and micromanage this mission are likely to be affiliated with Russia’s intelligence agencies, which run and staff the South Ossetian authorities. They even control the odd human rights facade, as shown by telephone intercepts from South Ossetia’s deputy intelligence chief, made public in Tbilisi this week (AP, December 15).

Russia is adding a small sweetener to Georgia and the OSCE in the proposed mandate: it would authorize the new mission to “facilitate the establishment of favorable conditions for safe and dignified return of refugees.” This item is, however, purely symbolic and impossible to implement under the Russian military occupation and in the absence of international security guarantees. Meanwhile, Russia insists at all levels that its own armed forces are the sole guarantor of security in “independent” South Ossetia, based on bilateral agreements with the South Ossetian “government.” This week, Russian “ambassadors” presented their credentials to the South Ossetian and Abkhaz “presidents” (Interfax, December 16, 17).

Moscow uses the word “refugees,” in order to avoid the term “internally displaced persons,” because the latter would signify that South Ossetia is an internationally recognized part of Georgia. Meanwhile, the OSCE’s Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) and Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) have collected substantial evidence of the forcible eviction of Georgians from South Ossetia and destruction of their villages in the aftermath of the Russian invasion (HCNM and ODIHR, “Human Rights in the War-Affected Areas following the Conflict in Georgia,” The Hague, November 2008).