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In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Recently, there has been a wave of arrests in the border region between Georgia and its rebel provinces of Abkhazia and – particularly – South Ossetia. In most instances, Georgian citizens have been arrested around the border line by Russian servicemen or separatist troops. Most have been accused of illegal trespassing and subsequently released, but some have been charged with more serious crimes and have not, to date, been freed. Georgia has responded in kind, arresting Russian and local civilians it claims have strayed over the boundary line (Civil.ge, November 25).

The case which has caused most international criticism is the arrest of four Georgian teenagers, aged 14 to 17, and charged with carrying grenades and other explosives (RFE/RL, November 11). The boys were taken into custody on November 7 by South Ossetian soldiers, and have not yet been released. There has been no information released to substantiate the claims.

Incidents have continued throughout October and November, and led to the dispatching of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg, on November 27. Ironically, Mr Hammarberg was initially refused entry to South Ossetia by the authorities in Tskhinvali (Messenger.ge, November 30). The Georgian authorities expressed frustration with the Council of Europe, warning that the case of the four detained teenagers was a ‘test’ for the organisation’s commitment to human rights.

The arrests - or kidnappings, depending on one’s point of view – seem to have replaced exchanges of gunfire and shelling that shook the ceasefire in the approximate year between the Russia-Georgia war and August 2009. They are significant for three reasons.

Firstly, and most obviously, are the continued limitations of the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM). The observers were unable to stop the occasional rounds of combat last year, and now they have proven unable to stop the kidnappings.

Partly this reflects their restricted presence: there are 242 monitors, a far more impressive number than the now-defunct OSCE and UN missions fielded in the rebel regions but clearly insufficient to observe, report and prevent abductions by either side. Partly, this reflects their limited mandate. They are still blocked from accessing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, making attempts to report on Georgian prisoners impossible. By contrast, Georgia’s handovers of Russian civilians have been closely overseen by EUMM staff.

Similarly, the Incident Prevention and Reaction Mechanism (IPRM), a series of regular meetings held in Geneva, is clearly failing to live up to its name. Some detainees have been returned after dialogue in the IPRM, but others clearly have not. The decision to return or keep detainees is made in Tskhinvali, Sukhumi, or Moscow. Lack of access there makes the EUMM powerless to influence the separatists. In any case, at times the rebel authorities have simply refused to show up to the IPRM, as South Ossetian representatives did on November 19 (EUMM, November 18). The IPRM has, to date, achieved little.

Secondly, the kidnappings show the increased desire by civilians on both sides to return to what they consider their homes and lands. South Ossetia has seen more abductions because, unlike Abkhazia, it was a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages before the war. Some which were ethnically and administratively Georgian were simply annexed by Russia, and the lack of a clear demarcated border makes it impossible for villagers - herding animals or collecting firewood – to identify the boundary.

This desire for normality by villagers shows that the humanitarian aspects of the conflict seriously need to be addressed. The lack of a clear boundary serves the political purposes of both sides, allowing Georgia to keep open the option of ‘reintegrating’ the territories, and allowing Russia and the separatists to create a sense of uncertainty amongst villagers who previously lived in the border zones, cementing their removal and preserving the ethnic makeup of the two territories.

Thirdly, the fact that shooting incidents have been almost entirely replaced by arrests is worth commenting on. It seems that Russia, in particular, has realised that exchanges of gunfire are inflammatory, and create the risk of fatalities which would require a response. Arrests and abductions, particularly of civilians alleged to be carrying explosives, allow Moscow to continue its rhetoric of a ‘terrorist’ Georgia which is rearming, without going to the political trouble of provoking serious clashes (RFE/RL, November 5). This should keep up the international and domestic pressure on Tbilisi without raising the risks.

This, in turn, suggests that Georgia is becoming less of a priority for Russian policymakers, who are cautiously probing the possibility of a new relationship with Brussels and Washington. Continuing to support separatist forces who are engaging in regular gunbattles with NATO aspirant’s soldiers would not be the best introduction for Russia’s recent draft European security strategy, which seeks to supersede the OSCE and NATO itself (AFP, November 29). Small-scale irritations to President Saakashvili are enough, for now.

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