EU foreign ministers to launch Georgia mission

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EU foreign ministers will meet today and tomorrow (5 and 6 September) in the French city of Avignon to launch a civilian monitoring mission in Georgia, as decided at the recent extraordinary EU summit. But such a mission’s ability to control the entire territory of Georgia, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia, remains in doubt.

According to diplomatic sources, although the meeting’s agenda includes other issues such as the Middle East peace process, updating the European Security Strategy and the latest crisis in Ukraine (EURACTIV 04/09/08), the “main course” will remain the situation in Georgia and the EU’s involvement there, as decided at the 1 September summit (EURACTIV 02/09/08). 

The aim is to send several hundred EU civilian observers to the region as soon as possible and guarantee the withdrawal of Russian troops from “security zones” in Georgia. The mission is expected to operate under the flag of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at first, although it could be transformed into a fully-fledged EU mission over time. 

But experts doubt that the EU personnel would be able to move effectively around the conflict areas, as Commission representatives recently recognised. EU personnel currently on the ground have been unable to directly deliver humanitarian aid to displaced persons due to obstructions by the Russian and South Ossetian authorities. 

Russia and Georgia, who have broken diplomatic relations with one another, mutually accuse each other of failing to implement the six-point peace plan brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (EURACTIV 29/08/08). Meeting his Italian colleague Franco Frattini in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Tbilisi of failing to honour its commitment to return to barracks. In return, Georgia circulated a paper entitled ‘Russian invasion of Georgia: Breaches by Russia of the Ceasefire Agreement’. The paper accuses the Russian army of illegally establishing 23 checkpoints on roads deep into Georgian territory. 

Ministers are also expected to ensure access to aid, which has yet to reach the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Council of Europe, the pan-European human rights body, said the Georgian crisis had led to a ”humanitarian disaster”. 

Some ministers are also expected to raise the question of which sanctions the EU could impose on Russia in a worst-case scenario, a source told EURACTIV. But several countries, including the French hosts, are reluctant to discuss sanctions for now, the source added. 

Another issue would possibly be to establish conditions for an international probe into a crisis where each side blames the other and the tolls of dead, injured and displaced are disputed. 

On 7 August, Georgian troops invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which is – like the other disputed province of Abkhazia - officially part of the territory of Georgia, but in fact autonomous and largely under Russian influence. Russia responded with massive military action, invading part of Georgia and prompting fears in the West that it may seek to use the occasion to topple Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western Georgian president, and turn Georgia into a vassal state like during Soviet times. 

France brokered a deal to end the war over South Ossetia last month, but Moscow has since defied the West by leaving troops in "security zones" along the lines separating Georgia from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel region. Russia's decision to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia further stretched ties with the West. 

On 1 September, EU leaders held an extraordinary summit and decided to freeze talks on a new basic EU-Russia treaty until Moscow fully complies with the peace plan. For this reason, they also decided to send monitors to Georgia on the understanding that the increased presence of international monitors would mean that Moscow could no longer justify keeping its troops in those areas, thus accepting international talks on a new security blueprint for the rebel regions. But officials acknowledge that Russia's response is uncertain and that the success of the plan could hang on Sarkozy's 8 September trip to urge Moscow to pull troops back to pre-conflict lines. 

The "Gymnich"-style ministerial takes place on the invitation by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who will be accompanied by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and relevant commissioners. Gymnich ministerials, which usually take place every six months in an informal atmosphere without producing conclusions, take their name from the German castle in which the very first meeting of EC foreign ministers was held in 1974. 

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