Talks at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on sending additional monitors to Georgia are deadlocked amid continuing disagreements between Russia and other participating states.
In a statement issued on September 18, the OSCE's Finnish chairmanship said negotiations "have not brought any results" since "there was no basis for consensus." "Therefore ... there is no point in continuing negotiations in Vienna at this stage," the statement added.
The announcement came three days after the 27 foreign ministers of the European Union gave their go-ahead to a 200-strong civilian observing mission to Georgia. The European observers -- due to be deployed by October 1 -- will be monitoring the implementation of the Russian-Georgian ceasefire agreement French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated last month in Moscow in his capacity of EU president.
The Vienna negotiations began a month ago and have stumbled on the issue of where additional OSCE monitors would be deployed.
Russia says both EU observers and extra OSCE monitors should remain outside Georgia's separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tbilisi and most western states insist all international observers should be able to get to all of Georgia without restrictions.
Both sides blame the other for the collapse of the Vienna talks.
On August 19, the OSCE agreed to boost the number of its unarmed military monitoring officers (MMOs) to Georgia by up to 100 and to immediately deploy a first group of 20 monitors in areas adjacent to South Ossetia. Participating states also agreed that, pending an agreement on the modalities of the additional observing mission, this advanced contingent would operate under the mandate of the eight MMOs that the OSCE has maintained in the region. Those observers were deployed to monitor implementation of the 1992 Dagomys ceasefire agreement that formally halted military hostilities between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali.
In theory, the 28 OSCE monitors already on the ground should be able to move freely across South Ossetia within the framework of their mandate. Yet, this is not the case.
All OSCE monitors present in South Ossetia left the region on August 8, shortly after hostilities between Russia and Georgia broke out. The OSCE field office in Tskhinvali was damaged during the shelling of the city and has yet to reopen.
Earlier in September, the OSCE said in a statement that, for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities, its MMOs had been able to patrol the road from Karaleti, a Georgian village located outside South Ossetia, to areas inside the separatist republic. But OSCE officials privately complain that both Russian troops and separatist militia are restricting the movement of monitors.
The head of the OSCE mission to Georgia, Terhi Hakala, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday (September 15) in Tskhinvali. An OSCE statement quotes Hakala as saying discussions focused on "the access of [MMOs] to South Ossetia and the need for restrictions to be lifted on freedom of movement of the OSCE [m]ission, as well as the possibility of reopening the OSCE [f]ield [o]ffice in Tskhinvali."
Theoretically, the OSCE's Permanent Council is expected to extend the mandate of the existing observing mission for another 12 months later this year. But even that is hanging in the balance.
On September 1, Tbilisi denounced the Dagomys agreement and withdrew from the Joint Control Commission, the quadripartite body in charge of implementing it. Georgia's move effectively deprived the OSCE's monitoring mission of its raison d'Ãªtre.
Speaking in Tskhinvali recently, Lavrov said the mandate of the eight OSCE monitors deployed in South Ossetia before the conflict needed to be "clarified." "There is no sense in monitoring agreements that [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili broke," the Russian minister pointed out.
He also said that, from Moscow's viewpoint, it is now up to "independent and sovereign" South Ossetia to decide whether to let the OSCE monitors redeploy. "Russia is a member of the OSCE and, as such, we guarantee that no longer will issues concerning South Ossetia be discussed at the OSCE in the absence of Tskhinvali's representatives," Lavrov added.
South Ossetia's separatist president Eduard Kokoity recently said his government would no longer accept OSCE monitors, whom he implicitly accused of failing to alert the international community on Georgia's military preparations. But Lavrov struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that "as far as [he] underst[ood]" from his talks with South Ossetian leaders they were "not opposed" to letting the eight OSCE monitors redeploy in the region.
Russia says the task of all other international observers should be to ensure that Georgia no longer tries to retake either of its two separatist republics by force. To back up its view that no additional foreign monitors should be allowed into Abkhazia or South Ossetia, the Kremlin cites an agreement Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev reached on September 8.
This agreement envisages the withdrawal of Russian troops "from the areas adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia" -- which Moscow refers to as a "security zone" -- and "the deployment in these areas of the international mechanisms, including at least 200 [EU] observers."
Yet, on September 9, the French president told reporters in Tbilisi that the EU observers "will have authority" to fulfill their mandate in both breakaway republics. Addressing the same press briefing, Saakashvili said he had secured a written commitment from his French counterpart and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that the EU observer mission would be deployed on the whole of Georgia's territory.
"First, this is wrong," Lavrov commented the next day. "Second, this is a malicious attempt to not explain honestly to Saakashvili which respective obligations the EU and Russia are now under," he added. Russia's "Kommersant" daily on September 10 claimed the documet Saakashvili referred to did not bear Medvedev's signature.
Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvli's subsequent remarks that the EU observers will be first deployed in areas adjacent to the zone of conflict and then "be free to monitor the situation wherever they will deem necessary" did not lift the ambiguity.
EU officials have said that they hope the issue of whether international observers should have access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be discussed at international negotiations slated to open in Geneva on October 15.
Moscow on September 17 signed with Tskhinvali and Sukhumi cooperation agreements that provide for the establishment of Russian military bases in both breakaway regions and authorize Russian troops to patrol their respective borders with Georgia.
In a recent newspaper interview, Belgium's Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht warned the international community against sending observers without first securing an agreement on their location. "Should Europeans be able to deploy only in the security zone, that would leave an aftertaste because, in essence, it would mean that we will have to protect borders that we did not recognize," Belgium's "La Libre Belgique" daily quoted De Gucht as saying on September 13.
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.