In the conflict-prone Caucasus, concern is mounting about a security vacuum following the end of the UN and OSCE's observer missions. Just 200 EU monitors are left, and they're facing a volatile situation.
Experts are warning of volatility in the separatist regions
Territorial tensions in the Caucasus have a long and tangled history, but since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia and Georgia have been repeatedly at odds over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It's not surprising, then, that several international observer and military missions have been active in the region.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has had a mission in Georgia since 1992 to promote negotiations between conflicting parties and reach a peaceful political settlement. In 1993, the United Nations created UNOMIG, a military observer mission to verify compliance with a 1993 ceasefire agreement between Georgian and Abkhaz authorities.
The OSCE's mandate expires on June 30
Tensions again came to a head in August 2008 when Georgia launched a short but bloody attack on South Ossetia. Russia, which has long supported the province's claims to independence, responded by pouring thousands of troops into South Ossetia. Georgian troops were forced out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a matter of days, with Russian troops also occupying parts of Georgia.
Under the ceasefire brokered with the help of then-EU president Nicolas Sarkozy, Russia agreed to pull its troops back into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but was repeatedly accused by Western nations of failing to abide by the truce deal. Adding fuel to the fire, Russia officially recognized the independence of the breakaway provinces, a move strongly condemned by the West, which maintains that the provinces are part of Georgia.
OSCE mandate expires June 30
As a result, the European Union sent a team of 200 observers to Georgia to monitor compliance with the Six-Point Ceasefire Agreement. Their one-year mandate began on Oct.1, 2008.
The EU monitors had been working in close cooperation with the OSCE and UN missions, but now, the situation has changed dramatically.
The OSCE's main mission to Georgia expired at the end of 2008, but the organization continued to be represented by 20 unarmed military monitors on a mandate that expires on June 30. Russia has scuppered negotiations on extending their mandate, and has denied them access to South Ossetia since the war.
Earlier this month, Russia also vetoed the extension of the UN mission in Georgia. The UN team had been monitoring the ceasefire along the border between Georgia and Abkhazia since the end of the war.
UN mission head Johan Verbeke said Russia's veto would undermine stability in Abkhazia, leaving some 60,000 ethnic Georgians there unprotected.
"We've contributed to ensuring that the population in Abkhazia had a secure environment in which to operate," Verbeke told Deutsche Welle. "I think this mission did effectively contribute to peace and security."
Veil of secrecy
Now, that hard-won security is at stake. With the departure of the OSCE and UN observers, the EU has been left alone with around 200 monitors, who are unable to enter either South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
"In sum, Russia has blinded the international community to what it is doing in the occupied Georgian territories," David J. Smith, director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center wrote on Georgiandaily.com, an independent English-language website based in New York. "Behind its veil of secrecy, Russia can continue to strengthen military logistics, perhaps preparing another armed attack on the rest of Georgia."
The international community is concerned about Russia's activities in South Ossetia
In a recent briefing, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, also expressed its view that "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."
Crisis Group called on Russia to "re-engage fully in discussions with the Security Council" in order to move past its June 15 veto and find a continued role for the UN in Georgia. It also called on the EU and other international organizations to invest the EU mission with an expanded role to address the situation on the ground.
The head of the EU mission, Joerg Haber, is nonetheless confident that his team will be able to carry out its task of furthering stability in the region and patrolling the border to South Ossetia, despite the loss of the OSCE and UN observers.
"We have enough people and vehicles to patrol the area and continue our work," Haber told Deutsche Welle. "Our mandate is not the same as those of the OSCE and the UN. The OSCE had broader powers than us, and the UN mission was mainly a mission of military observers. That's different to what we do, but I think we're well positioned to safeguard security here."
Haber added that he expects the EU member states to extend the mission in Georgia by another year at the end of July.
Author: Deanne Corbett
Editor: Rob Mudge