After a two-month stay, Russian troops have pulled out of Georgia, but questions persist about the efficacy of the newly formed European Union monitoring mission that has taken their place.
Under a September 8 agreement signed between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Russia had to complete the withdrawal of its forces from uncontested Georgian territory by October 10.
While Georgian officials have confirmed that the withdrawal from land adjoining the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is now complete, they say that they still expect Russian troops to withdraw from the formerly Georgian-controlled Akhalgori district within South Ossetia and Abkhazia's Upper Kodori Gorge, from which Georgian forces withdrew in mid-August.
The topic is expected to be the subject of further discussion during French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's October 9-10 visit to Tbilisi. Peace talks to be held in Geneva on October 15 will discuss security arrangements within Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as specified in the sixth point of the French-brokered ceasefire proposal signed by Russia and Georgia.
Meanwhile, the October 1 deployment of a European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) to monitor the ceasefire is expected to provide security guarantees for the return of refugees and Georgian police to areas bordering the two breakaway regions.
In the village of Tkviavi just outside the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, 22 local police had just returned to their station on October 8 to find tables, chairs, TVs, and official documents destroyed. No special units from the Georgian Interior Ministry are expected to move into the border zones, they said.
A EUMM patrol chief, who declined to give his name, told EurasiaNet that no patrols are planned with Georgian police. The mission, the patrol chief, a French non-commissioned police officer, said, must remain independent and true to its objectives of "impartiality, visibility and credibility."
With more than 200 civilian observers and some 350 staff, the EUMM has headquarters in Tbilisi and four regional field offices in central and western Georgia. Its one-year budget stands at 35 million euros (about $49 million).
Residents in villages bordering South Ossetia indicated to EurasiaNet last month that they saw the European monitors as the best bet for restoring their sense of security.
But in the village of Karaleti, that sense of expectation now appears to have moderated.
On October 8, trucks loaded with apples, a regional specialty, stood at every corner, while villagers sat quietly and observed EUMM monitors in their blue cars and Russian soldiers.
Madona Sukhitashvili, one young resident, described the situation as calm and added that she did not expect many changes with the introduction of the EU mission. Villagers have been steadily returning to Karaleti since early September, Sukhitashvili said, and have not experienced problems with Russian soldiers.
The actual mandate of the mission remains a point of contention between the EU and Russia. The EU wants its monitors to patrol in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but Russia has rejected this option. Such patrols appear all the less probable since Russia's August 26 recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"The mandate of the mission is Georgia-wide and thus includes South Ossetia and Abkhazia," elaborated an EU mission spokesperson. "However, EUMM is an unarmed, civilian mission and has no coercive powers. Therefore, we depend on the cooperation of all relevant parties."
Security concerns could also hinder a deployment of unarmed civilian monitors in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At least seven Russian soldiers were killed on October 3 during a car bomb explosion in Tskhinvali. Russia blames the Georgian government for the attack, a charge Tbilisi denies.
But the failure to deploy European monitors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could cast doubts on the relevance of the mission within a couple of months, argued one analyst.
"The EU member states need to find clearly what they want to do and they need to have a unified political position to really engage with Russia on this question," said Sabine Freizer, director of the Europe Program at the International Crisis Group in Brussels. "Because, of course, Russia is not eager to accept the EU's presence. It will require a substantial amount of political will of EU member states to push that."
After the withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of refugees to the security zones, "there is really a question of what the mission will be doing in Georgia," she added.
[The International Crisis Group receives funding from the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet is funded under the auspices of the Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project.]
Lili Di Puppo is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Caucaz.com and a PhD candidate at the European Viadrina University (Frankfurt/Oder) in Germany.