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EU Georgia Mission Doubts

Experts say observing mission’s mandate is still unclear.
By Dmitry Avaliani
The European Union has begun its observation mission to Georgia, with both sides unsure how far its mandate will stretch.



On October 1, in line with the schedule agreed earlier, the observers, their uniforms and armoured vehicles bearing the symbols of the EU, headed toward the areas adjoining South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have been patrolled only by Russian troops for the past month and a half.



There was an initial setback at the checkpoint outside the village of Karaleti near the administrative border with South Ossetia when Russian soldiers refused to let the observers through, saying they had no order to do so.



An hour later, after a representative of the Russian commander arrived on the scene, the observers were let through into what is now being termed one of the two “buffer zones” next to the two rebel territories.



Later in the day, the monitoring mission reported that 14 groups of observers, each comprising eight people in two cars, had patrolled the conflict zone. They said no violations of the ceasefire had been observed.



Reporters and human rights activists have seen evidence of looting and burning of Georgian villages around Karaleti since fighting began on August 7-8.



The despatch of EU observers to Georgia was agreed by the French and Russian presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev, on September 8 and was endorsed later the same day by Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. The observers are due to replace Russian troops in areas outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a process they are due to complete by October 10.



The EU Monitoring Mission, EUMM, comprises 200 observers from 22 member states, and has a mandate for 12 months. Four EUMM offices are being set up in Tbilisi, Gori, Zugdidi and Poti.



Visiting Tbilisi ahead of the launch of the mission, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Xavier Solana said the EU had “fully met its commitments”.



“We expect all sides to meet their commitments, just as it was done by the European Union,” he said and later repeated his words more than once, in an obvious hint to the Russians.



Yet there are still disagreements about how far the European monitors will be allowed to go, with no sign at the moment that they will be given access to either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.



At one point on October 1, the chief spokesman of the Russian peacekeeping forces, Vitaly Manushko, said that EU observers “will, in accordance with the agreement, be deployed only on the territory up to the southern border of the buffer zone”.



“The decision does not mean EU military observers will be banned from monitoring the buffer zone,” he added. “But for the time being there are no particular agreements as to how this monitoring will be carried out, which is why the issue will be solved later.”



Later, however, unarmed EU monitors and Russian troops were together inside the same zones.



The Georgian authorities are angry at Moscow’s refusal to let the observers into the two breakaway territories. Moscow says that the issue must be discussed with the “independent” governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who in their turn say that they don’t need any observers on their territories, and that monitoring is needed in Georgia so as to “prevent a repetition of aggression”.



Moscow has said that it will keep almost 8,000 troops in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.



At a joint press conference with Solana on September 30, President Mikheil Saakashvili said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the launch of the EU mission, but still demanded a full Russian pull-out from Georgia.



“Let’s not have any illusions,” he said. “We won’t be satisfied until the last [Russian] soldier has left our country.”



Solana was repeatedly asked while in Tbilisi about whether EU observers would monitor Abkhazia and South Ossetia and gave almost the same reply each time, “At the moment, the main task is to get the Russian troops out [of the border areas]. Other issues will be resolved later.”



Georgian experts suspect Russia of trying to manipulate the EU mission to suits its own interests.



Archil Gegeshidze of the Foundation for Strategic and International Studies said that the ambiguity of the sixth point of the August 12 peace plan allowed Russia to insist that the agreement covered only the buffer zones.



“After signing the agreement, Russia recognised [the independence of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has said that there are no conflicts on the territories; that these are new independent states,” Gegeshidze told IWPR. “Russia won’t admit that South Ossetia’s Georgian villages have been destroyed or that there are refugees. It does not want anyone to see what really happened there. That’s why it is trying to preserve the status quo.”



Gegeshidze said Georgia should not respond to provocations, but should act in full coordination with its western partners. “Russia is not happy with the six-point agreement, in which it failed to see some things that are unpleasant to it – for instance, [the provision about] the return of armed forces to the August 6 positions,” he said. “That is why Russia will be trying to create a situation, when it will become necessary to conclude a new deal that will be more advantageous to Moscow.”



Gegeshidze argued that the success or failure of the mission would have an impact not just for Georgia but for the EU as a whole.



“It’s the moment of truth for the European Union, which has now to show how effective its foreign and security policies are,” he said. “This is what will determine the reputation and future of the European Union.”



Another Georgian political analyst, Shalva Pichkhadze, told IWPR that the weakness of the mission lay in its unclear mandate, “If anything, no one has ever seen a description of the mandate or a map delineating the geographical borders of [the observers’] zone of presence.”



Pichkhadze also sees the mission as a test of will for the EU, “If the European Union tries hard and engages in a confrontation with Russia in order to strengthen its positions in the region, then the mission will be the start of a good enterprise that benefits Georgia’s sovereignty. If there’s no such will, EU will have just kept his word and that will be all.”



Dmitry Avaliani is a correspondent with 24 Saati newspaper in Tbilisi.

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