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Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009

On February 3, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a report on the situation in Georgia calling for the maintenance of the UN mission in the country, and the establishment of a basic security regime which would stabilise the area and prevent a further slide into violence. Against the backdrop of plans for Russian air and sea bases for Abkhazia, as well as new tensions over the ‘kidnapping’ of a Russian soldier (who claims he deserted to Georgian forces), the UN mission – as well as its EU counterpart – would seem to be a sticking plaster on a serious security problem.

But UNOMIG and EUMM have a critical role to play. The problem is that most analyses of the situation in Georgia, including the monitoring missions, focus entirely on the geopolitical aspects of the confrontation, and its place within the broader east-west security relationship. They do not look at human security, and all too often the needs of the local population are simply ignored. Obviously, the two levels reinforce each other: it seems clear, for instance, that no ultimate solution can be found without the active co-operation of Moscow, something that still seems a very distant prospect at the moment. But achieving some semblance of normality on the ground, and reducing the risk of violence and insecurity, is an achievable (if difficult) goal.

The UN mission, which has existed since 1994, is tasked with observing the terms of that year’s ceasefire and checking the ceasefire zone for heavy weapons; EUMM was installed in October 2008 to monitor the now-failing six point ceasefire signed in Moscow. Both forces are subject to a continuous political tug-of-war between Georgia and Russia, as well as between Georgia and the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian and Ossetian insistence that the OSCE mission in Georgia open a separate office in Tshkinvali, for example, led to the expiry of that mission’s mandate in December. Tbilisi claims that any such separation, or any moves to incorporate (and thus acknowledge) the boundary between Georgia proper and the provinces in the course of monitoring operations would legitimise the breakaway administrations. The separatists, for their part, insist that they must be included as equal partners in any joint monitoring.

As a consequence of this impasse, the EU mission has been unable to enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and engages in a fruitless ‘knocking on doors’ policy – each day the monitors approach the de facto border, request permission to enter, and are turned away. This insistence arouses the suspicions of the separatist authorities, who increasingly see EUMM as a Georgian proxy. The question of equal access, argues David Wood, Georgia expert at Saferworld, a conflict NGO, should be set aside. Instead the EU should focus its efforts on areas in which it can operate, whilst making a more concerted, and less political, attempt to talk to the civilians in the separatist regions. The UN mission already works in a similar fashion – it trains and     equips the law enforcement authorities in Abkhazia, whilst being careful to insist that these are de facto police, rather than de jure.

The obvious message of this co-operation with the separatists is that the reality on the ground has changed. Georgia has no realistic chance of reclaiming the territories in the foreseeable future, and maintaining the fiction that it does will only inflame tensions and hamper the work of the international missions. A sign that Tbilisi might be grudgingly, quietly accepting this fact came on January 28, when it signed an agreement with EUMM to greatly restrict the armaments it can deploy within 15km of the ‘border’ with Abkhazia. The fact that Russia, let alone the Abkhaz authorities themselves, refuses to sign such a deal, might make a cynical observer doubt its significance. But Georgia will gain nothing by intransigence – neither the EU nor the Abkhaz and Ossetian communities will trust Tbilisi not to begin a new round of hostilities without guarantees of peaceful intent.

Russia’s troop build-ups, and its plans for new bases, are obviously a discomforting sign for the thin blue line of EU and UN observers. But as Mr Wood points out, the Russian bases are, from a human security viewpoint, neither here nor there. Russian warships sat down the coast (if indeed Moscow can find the cash to pay for the facilities) are irrelevant to the needs of the affected populations – shelter, food, jobs, electricity.  In any case, Russia has no real interest in provoking another conflict with Georgia at the moment: it seems broadly willing to give the new Obama administration’s olive branch the benefit of the doubt, for now, and is happy to sit out and wait for President Saakashvili to be voted (or thrown) out of office.

It is hard to envy UNOMIG or the EUMM. Tbilisi and Moscow both disparage and manipulate the monitors, and it is true that neither mission has been particularly capable of stopping the shootings, explosions and kidnappings which plague the border regions. Theirs is a Sisyphean task: to remain apolitical in a deeply political conflict, to maintain peace in regions which they cannot even visit, to build confidence between two sides who, at least at the governmental level, evidently loathe each other.

Nonetheless, the missions can do two things. They can build trust at a local level, by patrolling, meeting civil society leaders and assisting with humanitarian efforts. And they can provide the international community with eyes and ears on the ground to watch for a new military build-up. They cannot bring about a meaningful solution to the conflict, but they can at least limit the present suffering and provide a basis for a future settlement. Sometimes a sticking plaster is better than nothing at all.

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