News & Current Affairs

August 20, 2008

Georgia facing reality of defeat

Georgia facing reality of defeat

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
When Russian troops eventually pull out of Georgian towns such as Gori and Zugdidi, ordinary Georgians will heave a sigh of relief.

Russian soldiers guard Georgian prisoners near Poti

Russia’s military has emerged a clear victor in the latest conflict

But that will also be the moment that they take on board the fact that the two territories at the heart of the conflict with Moscow, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although formally still regarded internationally as Georgian territory, are now essentially lost to them.

The people who will suffer most in the long term from this conflict are more than 20,000 ethnic Georgians from a mosaic of villages in South Ossetia who have now mostly fled.

Relatively few Georgians left during or after the small-scale 1990-92 conflict over South Ossetia and despite intermittent skirmishes and incidents, neighborly contacts continued.

Reporters who have passed through many of the villages in the last few days say they are now in ruins.

The Russian authorities and their South Ossetian allies are now saying that they will not allow the Georgians back any time soon.

A Russian foreign ministry statement on August 18 said, “It is clear that some time – and not a short period of time – must pass in order to heal the wounds and to restore confidence. Only after this, the conditions will be created for discussing practical aspects related to the problems of refugees.”

Hundreds of South Ossetians also lost their homes in the Georgian military assault of 7-8 August and, it appears, in the ensuing Russian counter-attack – but they have the small consolation of knowing they can start rebuilding them.

Russian leverage

The prospect is also now much bleaker for the 240,000 or so ethnic Georgians who were registered as displaced from the 1992-3 conflict in Abkhazia.

Refugees from Gori in Tbilisi

Refugees have flooded into Georgia’s capital from areas near South Ossetia

Their hopes of return were predicated on a successful peace agreement which now looks more elusive than ever.

Around 50,000 Georgians live in Abkhazia’s southernmost Gali district under an Abkhaz administration.

So far they have managed to stay in their homes, but their future is also more precarious.

It is not just a matter of Georgian control. It will also be harder now to maintain an international presence in the two disputed regions.

The final point in the six-point ceasefire plan reads: “Pending an international mechanism [in South Ossetia], Russian peacekeeping forces will implement additional security measures.”

That effectively puts an end to the former Joint Peacekeeping Forces, which had a Georgian contingent.

It also gives Moscow even more leverage than before over the shape of any security arrangements for the region.

Moscow is already insisting it can have the only real security presence there.

“We are of course not against international peacekeepers… but the problem is that the Abkhaz and the Ossetians do not trust anyone except Russian peacekeepers,” Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Unattainable dream

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the only international organization with a mandate in South Ossetia, wants to dispatch an additional 100 monitors to South Ossetia.

Abkhaz fighters

Abkhaz fighters were backed by Russian forces against the Georgians

But Russia has dragged its feet, saying it wanted to agree the terms of their deployment in more detail and the OSCE has so far agreed to send just 20 more monitors.

The OSCE had just nine military monitors on the ground in South Ossetia when fighting started there on 7-8 August.

The European Union, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner taking the lead, also says it want to provide peacekeepers, but Mr Kouchner’s Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, admitted this might not work.

“There are no signs of the Russians letting in anyone else,” he said.

In Abkhazia, the United Nations has a small contingent of around 130 unarmed monitors, who were bystanders in the recent crisis.

When the Abkhaz, with Russian support, wanted to capture the mountainous Upper Kodori Gorge district from the Georgians, they merely gave the UN monitors there a 24-hour warning to leave.

The EU has approved small aid programmes for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the last few years, but they have looked relatively modest when compared to the vast amount of Russian money coming into both regions.

Abkhazia is bigger and more diverse than South Ossetia with a lively media and many non-governmental organizations.

Many Abkhaz intellectuals dreamed of having some kind of independence free of both Georgia and Russia and with links across the Black Sea to the EU but that now looks unattainable.

‘Double standards’

Internationally mediated peace talks over both disputes had stalled and there is little chance of them resuming properly any time soon.

Faced with a tightening Russian grip, Western leaders can only fall back on expressing support for Georgia’s right to these territories.

US President George W Bush made this commitment on 16 August, saying: “Georgia’s borders should command the same respect as every other nation’s. There’s no room for debate on this matter.”

This becomes a moral argument, with the Russians answering that after supporting Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia, the West is guilty of “double standards” in the Caucasus.

Caught in the middle of these international wrangles are the current and former populations of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Abkhaz, Ossetians and other nationalities such as Armenians on the one hand, and the displaced Georgians on the other.

They often get along fine when they have a chance to engage in low-level meetings arranged by foreign organisations or across market stalls.

Now, unfortunately, they are being wrenched apart further than ever by conflict.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.

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August 14, 2008

US warns Russia of lasting impact

US warns Russia of lasting impact

Russian soldiers point their guns at Georgian troops on the outskirts of Gori, 14 Aug

Russian troops have begun handing back the town of Gori to the Georgians

The US defense chief has warned relations with Russia could be damaged for years if Moscow does not step back from “aggressive” actions in Georgia.

But Robert Gates said he did not see a need for US military force in Georgia.

His words came as Moscow said the idea of Georgian territorial integrity was an irrelevance.

Georgia’s breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – would never agree to being part of Georgia again, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Earlier, Russia said it had begun handing back the town of Gori to Georgian police but insisted its troops would stay in the area.

A Russian general said his forces were there to remove weaponry and help restore law and order in Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from South Ossetia and on a key route to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Plans for a joint patrol force by the Georgian police and Russian military had failed.

Our correspondent says there are also reports of Russian military vehicles moving around the town of Senaki and the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti in western Georgia.

US military aircraft unload relief supplies at Tbilisi airport

Russia has questioned what is in US aid deliveries to Georgia

Moscow had earlier denied the reports but Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, told a televised news conference it was legitimate for Russians to be in Poti as part of intelligence-gathering operations.

Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze later said a convoy of more than 100 Russian tanks and other vehicles was moving from the major western town of Zugdidi deeper into Georgia.

Mr Gates said that despite concerns that Moscow may not be keen quickly to leave Georgian territory, the Russians did seem to be pulling back.

“They appear to be withdrawing their forces back towards Abkhazia and to the zone of conflict… towards South Ossetia,” he said.

Gen James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said he believed Russia was “generally complying” with the terms of the truce, which called for its withdrawal from hostilities.

But, Mr Gates warned: “If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the US-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.”

The Russians were trying to redress what they regarded as the many concessions forced on them after the break-up of the Soviet Union and were trying to “reassert their international status”, Mr Gates said.

Georgia was also being punished for its efforts to integrate with the West and in particular to join Nato, the defense secretary went on.

Mr Gates’s address was the first effort by a senior member of the Bush administration to set out what the Americans believe is happening in Russia.

But while Mr Gates said Russia’s aggressive posture was not acceptable, our correspondent says, he took an unusual step for the Bush administration in ruling out the use of US force. This is not a fight that America wants to have.

Withdrawal

Georgia attacked the rebel region of South Ossetia from Gori a week ago, prompting Russian retaliation. The Georgians say it followed continuous provocation.

A Georgian state TV reporter was injured by gunfire while she was on air

Both sides agreed to a French-brokered ceasefire on Tuesday, amid international concern, but it has seemed fragile so far.

Earlier on Thursday in Moscow, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would respect any decision South Ossetia and Abkhazia made about their future status.

His words followed warnings from the US that Russia had to respect Georgia’s territorial sovereignty and withdraw its forces.

Meanwhile, the US has sent its second shipment of humanitarian aid into Georgia.

Russia has questioned whether the deliveries contain only humanitarian supplies.

Map of region

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