Flaunting Impunity in Russia's Security Zone
Flaunting Impunity in Russia's Security Zone
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Flaunting Impunity in Russia's Security Zone

In the Russian-declared "security zone" in Georgia, the last thing anyone feels is secure. The 20-kilometer-wide strip around South Ossetia is a no man's land of lawlessness. The first thing that strikes you inside the zone - if you can talk your way past the Russian military checkpoint north of the Georgian city of Gori - is the almost total lack of people. Some towns and villages look 90 percent empty. The ethnic Georgian residents have fled.

The Russians have allowed their Ossetian allies to loot and burn down homes in the area. Along the 15 kilometers, or 9 miles, of one stretch of road, I did not see a single business - mostly grocery shops, pharmacies and other small enterprises - that had not been ransacked. Much of the damage seems gratuitous. Some buildings have been rammed with large military vehicles in order to make it easier to steal their contents.

In the village of Tkviavi, one of the few residents remaining showed me what was left of his house, which he said had been torched by a group of Ossetian militia fighters. He said the men calmly came to the entrance of the house, poured a flammable liquid near the doorway and set it ablaze. He and a neighbor said these "militias" were coming in every day to loot what was left behind.

As if to flaunt their impunity, for 10 days the Russians flatly refused to let the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conduct observation patrols in the "security zone," though the group has a mandate to undertake them. Clearly the Russians have not been eager for witnesses to view the results of the destruction they have promoted. Russian troops have refused altogether to let workers from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees enter the area, even though their mission is purely humanitarian.

The driving away of civilians from the "security zone" has added a new crisis of displaced persons that Georgia is ill-equipped to cope with. At least 65,000 people are newly displaced, according to the UNHCR, in a small country where more than 200,000 people were already internally displaced from wars in the 1990s.

And all of this is occurring in an area well outside the territory of South Ossetia, which Moscow (alone) recognizes as an independent state. This is land even Russia supposedly accepts as sovereign Georgian territory.

Russian forces have resorted to the most disturbing tactics to shield themselves from blame. They are using an ethnic Chechen battalion of 300 to 500 fighters, a feared unit called "Vostok" with a reputation for cruelty and looting. Paradoxically, these forces fought against the Russian Army in the wars in Chechnya not too far north of here. If the intent is to make it appear these quasi-official units are autonomous or random looters, it won't wash. They are Russian Army units under full Russian command.

With its scorched-earth occupation of Georgian territory, Moscow is openly flouting the cease-fire agreement it signed last month with Tbilisi, which called for the withdrawal of its forces. Although Russia has pulled many of its troops out of Georgia, it has left hundreds of others behind, not just around South Ossetia but also outside of Abkhazia and in Georgia's key port city of Poti. Thus far, there have not been Georgian resistance attacks on the occupying forces. But the longer Russian troops stay in Georgia, the greater the chances new fighting will break out. Perhaps this is what Moscow is hoping for, to justify its continued destabilizing presence on Georgian soil.

Much of the talk in Western capitals has shifted to worries over a new Cold War. Of course, the strategic implications of Russia's military actions are staggering, along with its "recognition" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Yet while world leaders debate how to handle a newly aggressive Moscow, the situation on the ground in Georgia remains potentially explosive. The world must insist on full deployment of an international monitoring mission, return of displaced persons and Russian withdrawal.

European Union leaders have stated plainly that there can be no business as usual with Russia until its troops have withdrawn to the positions held prior to Aug. 7, when this crisis began. The EU-brokered agreement on Monday was welcome, but it will represent a victory for EU diplomacy only if Russian forces actually pull back, as Moscow has now promised to do within a month. If this central issue remains a focus of a united international community, then the chances of Russia pulling out of the "security zones" completely are strong, and people can get back to rebuilding their homes and their lives.

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