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EU in Georgia

August 7, 2009

One year after the Russian-Georgian war, the conflict between both parties is still unresolved. The EU's limited mission in the region is successful, but there's disagreement whether the US should join it.

EU observers at the airport in Tbilisi
The EU observers arrived in Georgia in September 2008Image: picture-alliance /dpa

What exactly happened on August 7, 2008, the day when the five-day war between Russia and Georgia began, remains unclear even one year after the events unfolded. The EU is currently preparing a report about the causes of the war which is expected to be released this fall, but even it may not be able to establish what really triggered the start of hostilities.

"I think we may never know exactly how this war broke out," says Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. "There are very conflicting stories, depending on which side you talk to. I think we can all agree that there was a series of escalating, mutual provocations that lead up to this war. This didn't come out of the blue, both sides were in a sense preparing for it."

And tensions are still running high in the region. In the lead up to the first anniversary of the war both sides exchanged accusations and insults. There were also reports of shots and grenades fired between Georgia and the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Moscow
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy negotiated a cease fire agreement in MoscowImage: AP

"It's a very volatile situation," notes Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform. "The Russian forces not only remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they have also held on to some of the territory in Georgia proper that they occupied during the war in violation of the Russian-European agreement that [French President] Sarkozy and [Russian President] Medvedev signed in August 2008."

Good job

So despite the current cease fire between both sides, all the ingredients for another military conflict are still in place, says Valasek. With Russia's rejection of an extension of the UN and OSCE missions monitoring the situation in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, EU observers are now the only international contingent left in the area.

The mandate of the roughly 200 monitors has just been expanded until next year and their work received unlikely praise from Russia's foreign minister who on Wednesday called the mission an "important stabilizing factor," an assessment that is shared by experts.

"I think it's done an excellent job, given how small it is," says Stent. "I think it has probably managed to prevent more violence from breaking out." She adds: "But of course its mission is rather limited, it's not armed and there are a lot of things which the EU mission cannot see because it's not allowed into South Ossetia itself."

Tomas Valasek praises the EU contingent for being instrumental in helping to ascertain what is actually happening on the ground in what he calls a "pretty confusing picture with lots of different militias aligned with one side or another, operating semi-autonomously."

And while the EU observers can't prevent another round of armed conflict, just by being there they at least put pressure on both parties. "And we're hoping that by keeping a spotlight on the conflict in South Ossetia and the region we deter both governments in Tbilisi and Moscow from doing something stupid," says Valasek who adds that the only area in which the EU mission failed to fulfill its task - because of Russia's veto - is monitoring events from South Ossetia: "That has been a disappointment."

Debate about US participation

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili during a speech in Georgia
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili wants the US to join the EU missionImage: AP

But while there is agreement as to the general usefulness of the EU's mission in the region, the question whether the US should join the operation is more divisive. Georgia last month asked Washington to take part in the European mission, a move that was strongly rebuffed by Moscow who accused Tbilisi of wanting to pitch the Americans against the Russian military.

The Obama administration so far has not publicly answered the request and the EU has debated the issue, but postponed a decision on whether to invite the US as well as others such as Canada and Turkey to join. While some EU members worry that a US participation might unnecessarily irritate the Russians, others believe it could make the mission more effective.

An additional argument by those opposing the US joining the mission, is that it will virtually guarantee that Russia won't allow the observers to go into South Ossetia in the future, says Valasak. "There's very little chance the EU observers will be allowed to go into South Ossetia anyway. Russia seems to have made up its mind, that it's not letting anybody in." What's more, he says, the US presence in Georgia wouldn't even need to be increased because the US government is already engaged there, advising on reforms and distributing aid.

For Valasek the arguments in favor of US participation outweigh those against it. By joining, the US would get a clearer picture of the situation, he says. It would also signal to Russia that the US and Europe are united on the issue.

"I am not sure that the US will join the mission," says Angela Stent. "I think it really would be a question of what would the US add to this beyond a sort of political reassurance for the Georgians." This reassurance, she adds, might also be provided through the bilateral treaty between Georgia and the US and through direct talks such as recently when US Vice President Joe Biden visited Tbilisi.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge