EU peace mission to Georgia up in the air

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Controversy erupted yesterday (10 September) over the terms of an EU-sponsored mission to Georgia, as Moscow refused to allow European ceasefire monitors to observe the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway regions now officially recognised by Russia.

The agreement signed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso on 8 September in Tbilisi contradicted a deal sealed earlier the same day in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday. 

Indeed, the signed agreement, published on the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, says the EU “stands ready to deploy monitors in the whole of Georgian territory” and stresses the bloc’s support for the territorial integrity of Georgia. 

In contrast, the document agreed in Moscow states that “preparations will be accelerated to allow the deployment of observers in the areas adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia”. 

Lavrov described the discrepancy as “a completely unscrupulous attempt not to honestly explain to [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili what commitments the EU had taken on itself and what commitments Russia had undertaken”. 

He made it plain that EU observers will not be allowed into the breakaway regions, which Russia had in the meantime recognised as independent states. 

Earlier, Sarkozy was criticised by Polish President Lech Kaczynski for neglecting to mention the need for Moscow to respect Georgia’s borders in the six-point peace plan of 12 August (EURACTIV 29/08/08). 

Observers or human shields? 

In fact, Russia expects EU ceasefire monitors to operate under a UN banner. Rather than observe, it wants them to act as a buffer along South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s borders, providing security guarantees, a diplomat told EURACTIV. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s description of the EU as “guarantor of peace” seems to confirm this understanding. 

But the EU view is completely different. A Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that according to the views expressed by Sarkozy, the 200 EU observers should be deployed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia because one of their tasks will be to observe the return of displaced people to their homes. 

The spokesperson did not deny the misunderstanding with the Russian side. 

“As Mr. Sarkozy said, all issues are not solved yet. This is why one of the agreements was to set up this conference in Geneva, from 15 October, because there are post-conflict issues still to have discussed,” the Commission spokesperson explained. 

“Misunderstandings are part of the dynamic, but all in all, we are moving forward,” he added. 

In the meantime, Russia announced its decision to keep about 7,600 troops inside South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

US accuses Russia of violating truce 

Meanwhile, the United States, which has so far kept a low profile on the diplomatic front during the Georgian crisis, yesterday accused Moscow of violating the peace agreements and increasing its military presence by more than 5,000 troops. 

“3,800 in each of those areas [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] separately, for a total of 7,600, is a clear violation not only of previous accords but the ceasefire accord,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. 

Under the terms of international agreements ending the armed conflict of the 1990s, Russia had kept about 1,000 troops each in South Ossetia and Abkhazia before August 6, he said – with proscribed limits of 1,500 troops in each region. 

“What we agreed to is getting their troops back to their pre-August 6 positions,” McCormack added, referring to the August 12 ceasefire. 

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 international monitors to Georgia on the understanding that their increased presence would mean that Moscow could no longer justify keeping troops in those areas, thus accepting international talks on a new security blueprint for the rebel regions. 

An EU delegation went to Russia on 8 September. Led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, it managed to convince Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to agree to a complete withdrawal of troops from Georgia proper – although Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained outside the scope of the agreement.

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