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Mission Impossible?

DW staff (th)August 19, 2008

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) got Russian and Georgian approval Tuesday, Aug. 19 to beef up its monitoring mission in Georgia. But the OSCE might not get the access it wants.

A Russian soldier at a checkpoint near Gori, Georgia
The current ceasefire between Georgia and Russia is tenuousImage: AP

For more than 10 years, the OSCE maintained a small field office in South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has seen periodic fighting in the years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Yet after fighting between Russia and Georgia broke out earlier this month, the OSCE found itself in the line of fire. OSCE evacuated the half dozen military monitors found assigned to South Ossetia's capital city of Tskhinvali after the office building was shelled.

On Tuesday, Aug. 19, after initial resistance from Russia, the OSCE has gotten the green light to send 20 unarmed military monitors to the conflict region. The first observers will begin arriving by the end of this week with another 70-80 expected soon after.

But it remains unclear whether the peacekeepers will be allowed in the disputed area of South Ossetia.

An uneasy relationship

The OSCE has said that peacekeepers "will be deployed immediately to the area adjacent to South Ossetia," after Russia demanded that the monitors be kept out of the center of the conflict zone.

Residents of Gori reach out for humanitarian aid
The OSCE wants to ensure that aid can reach peopleImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Finding a consensus on where exactly observers will be allowed to go is an "extremely difficult thing," said Aleksi Harkonen, the representative of Finland which currently holds the OSCE chairmanship.

The conflict started when Georgia launched a military offensive against South Ossetia, an area closely allied to Russia. Moscow put a stop to the Georgian operation, sending troops, tanks and warplanes into the area. Both sides have signed a ceasefire agreement, but Russia has been slow to withdraw its troops.

On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised to withdraw all but 500 Russian troops from Georgia by Friday, according to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office.

Humanitarian aid a priority

The job of the unarmed OSCE officers will be to observe the ceasefire between Georgia and Russia, thereby paving the way for humanitarian organizations to come to the conflict zone, Finland's Harkonen said.

"Now for the first time we have the chance of independent assessment," he said.

The first destination for OSCE monitors will be Gori, a Georgian town south of South Ossetia, to observe the withdrawal of Russian forces there, the senior Finnish diplomat said.

UN agencies and non-governmental organizations appealed for 40 million euros ($58.6 million) to provide relief aid for tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the conflict.

Russia, South Ossetia unhappy

A destroyed tank in a street in Tskhinvali
OSCE monitors pulled out of Tskhinvali after fighting beganImage: AP

On Monday, the president of South Ossetia said he would not allow international observers back into his region.

"We have no confidence in these international observers, in these people who corrupt the truth," South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity told Reuters in an interview.

Russia, a member of OSCE, has also become a vocal critic of the organization in recent years. It has accused the 56-member group of being unfairly influenced by European members and the United States.

Overcoming differences

Russia and Georgia had strong disagreements about the OSCE mission. Russia had initially said that it wanted monitors only after its troops had withdrawn from Georgia. Tbilisi had demanded that monitors be allowed inside South Ossetia.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb
Stubb wants monitors in the conflict zone as soon as possibleImage: AP

"The key now is to have the monitors in there, and then we'll see how we can solve the situation in the long term," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said.

The Finnish minister said he would travel to Georgia on Thursday "to check out that everything is running at least fairly smoothly" and to ensure that the monitors have free access "to the areas in and near the conflict zones."