UN Withdrawal Leaves Border Georgians Fearful

Georgian minority in Abkhazia feels especially exposed now international monitor are packing their bags.

UN Withdrawal Leaves Border Georgians Fearful

Georgian minority in Abkhazia feels especially exposed now international monitor are packing their bags.

United Nations observers are pulling out of Georgia, leaving many people who live in the conflict zone that they have been monitoring afraid for their security and prompting predictions of an escalation of tension.

The withdrawal process started on June 30 and is to be completed by the end of July.

The UN Observer Mission in Georgia, UNOMIG, was established in 1993. The mandate of its roughly 130 observers was extended for what we now know was the last time in February 2009.

On June 15, however, Russia torpedoed the mission, vetoing a UN Security Council draft resolution that sought a technical extension of the mandate.

Russia voted against the resolution because the mission’s title continued to describe it as a “mission in Georgia”. Moscow insists that breakaway Abkazia and South Ossetia are now independent states.

Earlier, the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe failed to reach an agreement on an extension to OSCE monitoring operations in breakaway South Ossetia. The OSCE mission had been operating there since 1992.

The authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, controversially recognised by Russia as independent states after a brief war last August, said they were willing to accept international observers remaining on their soil.

But they set a high price. They said they would do so only after the international community endorsed their declarations of independence – declarations that Tbilisi maintains are illegal.

The statements prompted an angry response from Georgia, from which the two lands effectively broke away in the 1990s.

Fears have been voiced in Tbilisi that without the presence of international observers, jitters in Georgia’s conflict zones with Abkhazia and South Ossetia may increase. They say foreign observers helped avert worse trouble.

Shota Malashkhia, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s temporary commission for the restoration of territorial integrity of the country, said there was a danger that Russia and its allies were deliberately upping tensions in the region.

“With the observers withdrawing, provocations in the region should not be ruled out,” he said.

“After last year’s war and in the light of the global economic turbulence, Russia cannot afford to embark on fresh large-scale aggression against Georgia.

“But it does want to see the situation here becoming strained.”

Malashkhia said the only way to prevent this tension in the conflict zone from continuing to grow was to deploy new international observers – preferably from the European Union.

“EU observers should be allowed to take the place of UNOMIG,” he said, referring to the UN mission’s acronym. “Russia has no right to hamper them from carrying out monitoring activities in Abkhazia.”

The opposition political movement, the Alliance for Georgia, for once agreeing with the government’s analysis of the situation, described UNOMIG’s withdrawal as a “tragedy”.

“Shutting up the UN Observer Mission in Georgia poses a great threat to the security of the country,” one of the leaders of the alliance, Victor Dolidze, said.

A Georgian expert, Gia Nodia, described Russia’s move to veto any extension of the UNOMIG mandate as part of its strategy aimed at forcing Georgia to accept the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia was following a “consistent policy aimed at changing all the existing formats of negotiations to adjust them to the much-talked-about ‘new realities’, which means ensuring that Abkhazia and South Ossetia participate in negotiations as independent states”, Nodia said.

Whether this strategy gets anywhere remains to be seen, the same analyst continued. “Russia wants the West to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia but the West won’t do so, [so] I don’t think anything is going to change anywhere in the near future.”

Meanwhile, officials in the breakaway statelets have eyed the departure of the UN with mixed feelings. Some officials in Sukhum, capital of Abkhazia, said they did not wish to see the observers go, viewing them as a valuable conduit linking these isolated countries to the world stage.

“We were interested in the mission continuing its work,” the Abkhaz foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, said.

“[The mission] opened contacts for us, making it possible for us to participate in the international [diplomatic] process; our problem would be discussed at UN Security Council meetings.

“But we couldn’t have agreed to a new mandate if it contained even a slightest mention of Abkhazia as part of Georgia. We were ready to preserve the mission, but not at any price.”

Irakli Khintba, a lecturer at the Abkhaz State University, agreed.

“It was through the reports of the UN Secretary General that the world received quite balanced information about whatever processes were taking place in Abkhazia,” he said.

“That is why the mission’s withdrawal will probably spell for Abkhazia a loss of an important means of accessing public opinion in the West and the entire world.

“In the long run, it may make it still more difficult for Abkhazia to achieve international recognition.”

Meanwhile, the withdrawal of the observers has left the population in the conflict zone on both sides of the de facto border feeling nervous.

The Georgian minority living on the Abkhaz side is especially concerned for its future.

People in the mainly Georgian Gali district of Abkhazia say that the UN mission has up to now been the main source of their sense of safety.

There are still more than 200 EU observers in Georgia but they are not allowed to enter Abkhazia. The EU observers may only patrol the Georgian-controlled part of the conflict zone and have no access to the Gali district.

“The UN cars used to patrol our village, and we would feel more secure,” Natela, 72, who lives in the village of Nabakevi, in Gali, said. “The end of the mission to me means the end of the hope for peace.”

“Of course, the UN mission had no police functions, and they did not investigate incidents, but they did prevent violence against civilians,” agreed Natela’s fellow villager, Zurab, 45. “I’m afraid life will become less safe here now they’re leaving.”

People who often cross the administrative border hope some new form of observer force can be set up and vested with greater powers.

“The international organisations, together with the conflicting parties, should try to create a monitoring group endowed with police powers,” said a member of the exiled pro-Tbilisi administration in Gali.

“But neither the Russians, nor the Georgians and Abkhaz are ready to take the step yet. And, as a result, ordinary people, who have been living perpetually in fear for 16 years now, continue to suffer.”

There seems scant chance of such a breakthrough now, however. The Abkhaz leader, Sergei Bagapsh, has declared that after the UN mission withdraws from Abkhazia, “no other international [monitoring] organisation will have a presence in the republic”.

Irakli Lagvilava and Anaid Gogorian are IWPR contributors.
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