EU must stay engaged in Georgia crisis
EU must stay engaged in Georgia crisis
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

EU must stay engaged in Georgia crisis

THE Georgian-South Ossetian conflict moved one hopeful step closer to a resolution, when the sides to the conflict agreed to full demilitarization of the conflict zone by 20 November.

The EU needs to stay engaged and boost the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help solidify these gains.

The agreement on demilitarization was the outcome of discussions between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity held on 5 November in Sochi, Russia. It was the first time since 1998 that a high level meeting was held between the two sides. Other issues discussed included the implementation of a ceasefire, freedom of movement of goods and people, cooperation between law enforcement agencies and economic cooperation and development.

The meeting came as a fragile peace is holding between Georgia and South Ossetia after a series of clashes in August 2004, which caused at least 22 deaths.

The situation remains tense in the South Ossetian region, where exchanges of gunfire between Georgian and Ossetian hamlets are frequent. A tri-partite peacekeeping force (JPKF) of 1,500 Georgian, Russian and Ossetian troops patrols only part of South Ossetia. The OSCE has deployed a monitoring mission, but with only six observers its capacities are limited.

There has been little progress in finding a political settlement to the conflict since the end of the 1991-92 war, when intense fighting led to some 1,000 deaths, displaced 70,000 people and caused extensive damage to infrastructure and property.

Georgia and Russia have since signed bilateral agreements on economic rehabilitation of the conflict zone and on return and reintegration of refugees.

Little has been done to implement them. Through the Joint Control Commission (JCC), bringing together the Georgian, Russian, South Ossetian and North Ossetian sides, with OSCE participation, agreements have been made on a range of security, policing, refugee return and economic issues.

Yet talks on defining South Ossetiaâ's future status have been frozen since 2000.

The European Commission has supported confidence-building efforts through the provision of three grants totalling l7.5 million since 1997. The Council of Ministers adopted a Joint Action in 1991 to contribute to the conflict settlement process and a follow-on action in 1993. The EU Special Representative for the Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, has travelled repeatedly to the region, most recently on 16-17 November.

The latest phase of fighting occurred after the Georgian side initiated a large-scale anti-smuggling operation in and around South Ossetia with the aim of dismantling a sprawling illegal market. In closing the market, Georgia hoped to undermine the funding base of the South Ossetia authorities.

Tbilisi expected that the South Ossetians would quickly turn against Kokoity and rally behind the popular Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, as had been the case in the western Georgian region of Ajara in May.

The strategy backfired. South Ossetia's authorities successfully portrayed Georgian moves as aggressive first steps towards a remilitarization of the conflict, the Ossetian people rallied around their leadership and began preparing for all-out war with Tbilisi.

Negotiations within the JCC led to the signing of a ceasefire agreement on 19 August and, overall, the peace has been holding but only just.

Winter is fast approaching. Economic conditions for Ossetians and Georgians living in the conflict zone are worsening, freedom of movement is not guaranteed and both sides are blocking roads as an intimidation tactic.

The situation in the Georgian populated villages is particularly dire: armed Ossetians appear to be contemplating the forceful eviction of Georgian inhabitants.

To resolve the conflict non-violently all sides need to return to the negotiating table. Ultimately the territorial integrity of Georgia should be restored. But, before this can be done, the Ossetian people need to feel confident that they will have equal rights in a multinational and democratic Georgia. Trust needs to be regained before a comprehensive status package is offered to the Ossetians.

The onus is now on the Georgian state to ensure that political, economic, legal and social conditions are in place to guarantee Ossetian citizens their rightful place in Georgia.

In future talks with Russia, South and North Ossetia, Georgia must make offers to increase the security and confidence of people living in the conflict zone; promote economic rehabilitation and development; and; create arrangements that will secure South Ossetia's autonomous status.

This will take time and the support of Georgia's European partners. The EU can assist by continuing to fund rehabilitation programmes to help Ossetians in the south return to their homes in Georgia proper.

It can help support greater regional economic cooperation through the development of better road and rail links, common infrastructure and joint Georgian-Ossetian law enforcement. The European member states can also continue pushing for a greater OSCE presence in South Ossetia to carry out monitoring  but also to engage in other political and economic activities.

It can work with Russia to try to encourage Georgia and South Ossetia to find a political solution to the conflict.

The negotiation process that began earlier this month must continue. The alternative is bleak. Should one party apply force to meet its political goals, the other will respond militarily and massive displacement will ensue.

The war that would engulf the region would destroy Georgia's hopes for a brighter future, while pulling Russia into another conflict in its volatile North Caucasus.

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