Europe Briefing N°53
22 June 2009
Ten months after the “August war” between Georgia and Russia, violent incidents and the lack of an effective security regime in and around the conflict zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia create a dangerous atmosphere in which extensive fighting could again erupt. Russia has not complied with key aspects of the ceasefire agreements that President Medvedev reached in August/September 2008 with French President Sarkozy in his then EU presidency role. Its 15 June Security Council veto of an extension of the sixteen-year-old UN observer mission mandate in Georgia and Abkhazia and its apparent intention to require the removal of the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by the end of the month are blows to regional security that will further fuel tensions. Most of the on-the-ground conflict resolution machinery is thus being dismantled. Moscow should review its counterproductive position and work for a reasonable compromise allowing the UN and OSCE monitors to continue their important work.
Georgia: The Risks of Winter, Europe Briefing N°51, 26 November 2008
Russia vs Georgia: The Fallout, Europe Report N°195, 22 August 2008
Russia says it is guaranteeing security at the request of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which do not trust international observers. But it has legal obligations to do more for the security and safety of local populations, regardless of ethnicity, and to prevent human rights abuses in areas that are in effect under its control. Most importantly, it must expand efforts to allow the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially the approximately 25,000 ethnic Georgians who have been unable to go back to their homes in South Ossetia.
All sides in the conflict – Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian – committed war-time abuses, but the actions of Ossetian militias, who systematically looted, torched and in some cases bulldozed most ethnic Georgian villages, were particularly egregious. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called those abuses “ethnic cleansing” Human Rights Watch cited ample evidence to label them “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes”. The PACE also noted “the failure of Russia and the de facto authorities to bring these practices to a halt and their perpetrators to justice”. Indeed, Russian troops largely stood by, unwilling or unable to perform their security duties.
Since August 2008, Russia has consolidated its position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the face of relatively little international criticism. It has not returned its military presence to pre-war levels and locations, as called for in the 12 August six-point plan, and, in April 2009, it sent additional troops to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In violation of its 7-8 September agreement with the EU, it has prevented the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from continuing pre-war activities in South Ossetia, including monitoring and implementation of a rehabilitation and reconstruction program. It justifies its positions by saying “new realities” prevail, because it recognised the August independence declarations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and concluded bilateral security agreements.
It has now gone two steps further, not only vetoing the UN mission that has been working in Abkhazia but also blocking a renewed mandate for the OSCE mission to Georgia that has been active in South Ossetia. Though none of the other 56 OSCE member states support it on this latter step, the fourth biggest OSCE mission is on the verge of closing on 30 June because a mandate extension requires consensus.
Several rounds of discussions sponsored by the UN, EU and OSCE, focusing on security and humanitarian issues, have been held among representatives of the four sides in Geneva without tangible results. The presence of excess troops and lack of a security regime have made it impossible for even some IDPs who lived in the former Russian “buffer zones” in Georgia to feel secure enough to return to their homes. The 2008 wave of IDPs presented the Georgian authorities with a serious challenge, when they were already struggling with at least 200,000 IDPs from the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the early 1990s. Following the August events, the government swiftly built semi-permanent housing for the newly displaced. Now it needs to develop a more comprehensive approach to integrate both new and old IDPs into the country’s broader social and economic fabric.
In August 2008 Crisis Group recommended a series of steps to resolve the conflict. Many of those recommendations remain unsatisfied but still valid. To stabilise the security situation, lessen chances for renewed major hostilities and improve the humanitarian situation, Russia should:
The Georgian government and the de facto authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia should:
The EU, the U.S. and the Council of Europe and other international organisations should:
This briefing focuses primarily on the situation in South Ossetia; subsequent reporting will be directed at the situation in Abkhazia.