Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Georgia: OSCE Stalemated On Future of Georgian Mission

Despite a recent agreement on extending the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s unarmed military monitoring contingent to Georgia, efforts to save the OSCE’s mission to the region from closure have so far brought no results.

Talking to EurasiaNet on the sidelines of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual winter meeting in Vienna, a top Russian diplomat said negotiations on the fate of the OSCE mission to Georgia were at a standstill.

“[Last year], our partners -- especially our western partners -- and the Finnish chairmanship [of the OSCE] refused to enter into a dialogue with us. The same is happening now. Our partners do not want to talk to us,” Russia’s Ambassador to the OSCE Anvar Azimov said on February 20. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

While refraining from blaming any particular side, one OSCE official who asked not to be identified confirmed to EurasiaNet that talks were stalled.

Ever since its creation in 1992, the mandate of the OSCE mission to Georgia and its South Ossetian branch had been routinely extended at the end of each calendar year. But the short war that pitted Russia against Georgia over South Ossetia last August upset the traditional consensus that had existed over that issue among OSCE participating states.

As the December 31 deadline for renewing the mission’s mandate was approaching, Russia -- which unilaterally recognized South Ossetia’s independence after the war -- insisted that OSCE field operations in Georgia and its breakaway republic be split from each other and given separate mandates “to reflect the new realities on the ground.” A large majority of OSCE participating states then opposed Moscow’s stance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

On December 22, Finland’s Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said efforts to find a compromise had failed and announced that that the OSCE mission to Georgia would be closing imminently. He implicitly blamed Russia for the collapse of the talks.

When taking over the OSCE chairmanship from Finland on January 1, Greece declared its intention to revive consultations among participating states with a view to preventing the termination of the mission which, as of today, remains in a state of “technical closure.” [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In a bid to break the deadlock, Athens has proposed to maintain two mutually independent missions in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and set up a new, Vienna-headquartered structure to oversee the work of the 28 military monitoring officers (MMO) the OSCE has on the ground.

Moscow initially seemed to support Athens’ proposal. But it eventually rejected the draft, thus prompting Greece to produce a revised version, which Georgia amended heavily. While saying that the Greek proposal is providing a good basis for negotiations, Georgia has warned against any arrangement that could be seen as legitimizing South Ossetia’s self-proclaimed independence.

OSCE officials privately say they find Georgia's position difficult to understand and as ambiguous as Russia's. “We’re sometimes getting the impression that the Georgians have already written the OSCE off and that they’re hiding behind the Russians in the hope that Moscow will take the blame for the collapse of the talks,” one Western diplomat said.

Meanwhile, Azimov told EurasiaNet that Moscow had presented the Greek chairmanship with an alternative plan, which he described as follows: “In our proposal we say that we are for an OSCE field presence in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali and that the monitoring components should be part of these missions.”

OSCE officials say that if the Russians do actually insist that the two projected offices share responsibility over the MMOs, they would nonetheless accept that monitoring operations be supervised from Vienna, and that a link between the two missions is maintained under certain procedural conditions.

Disputing Western claims that Russia is obstructing the talks, Azimov accused Greece and other OSCE participating states of hindering the consultations. “I perfectly understand that Russia will eventually be blamed. [But] I blame our Western partners and the Greek chairmanship who do not want to work constructively with us,” he said, adding that, in his view, Greece “should work more actively with South Ossetian authorities” on the mandate issue.

Greece’s ambassador to the OSCE, Mara Marinaki, dismissed Azimov’s allegation. “It is a well-known fact that the Greek chairmanship intends to continue its active engagement as an honest broker, aiming at a principled compromise acceptable to all parties,” she wrote in a brief statement sent to EurasiaNet through the OSCE press office.

Sources privy to the consultations note that relations between Russia and the current OSCE chairmanship are strained. Tension increased in mid-February when the Greeks, yielding to Georgian pressure, skipped an informal meeting that Azimov had arranged in Vienna with Boris Chochiyev, South Ossetia’s chief negotiator at the Geneva talks.

Azimov claims Russia is flexible. “We’re telling [our partners]: if there is a problem with [the tentative mission to] Tskhinvali, let’s just put Tskhinvali aside for the moment and work on the mandate of the OSCE in Georgia so that we can preserve the monitoring operations,” he says.
Russia and the other 55 OSCE participating states on February 12 agreed to extend until late June the mandate of the 20 MMOs the organization deployed in areas adjacent to South Ossetia after the August military conflict.

The decision does not apply to the eight unarmed military monitors who were in South Ossetia before the war and whose mandate expired on December 31, along with that of the OSCE mission to Georgia. Those eight observers were evacuated to Tbilisi during the conflict and South Ossetia objects to their return, unless a fully-fledged OSCE mission to Tskhinvali is set up.
Azimov warned that Russia might veto further extension of the monitors’ mandate if the mission issue is not settled by June 30: “If our concerns remain unheeded, if we don’t work out the modalities and functions of the work of OSCE observers -- including in Georgia . . . then I do not rule out that we might take a firm stance and terminate the OSCE presence in Georgia as a whole,” he said.

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