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Georgia and Russia: The occupation too many have forgotten

Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Luke Coffey shares his first hand account of the situation on the ground in Georgia as the Russian occupation continutes

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Russian soldiers man a checkpoint near the Georgian village of Kekhvi
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Luke Coffey
On 1 June 2012 08:51

Almost four years after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, approximately 10,000 Russian troops still occupy the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This occupation represents 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory and is in direct violation of the Six Point Ceasefire Agreement brokered by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Although many of Georgia’s friends have forgotten about the occupation, the Georgian people certainly have not. Polling shows the question of Georgia’s territorial integrity as the biggest concern after unemployment for the Georgian people.

Yesterday, I visited the Line of Occupation near the Georgian village of Odzisi. Put simply, the Line of Occupation is where free and democratic Georgia meets Russian-occupied and oppressed Georgia. It’s quite a surreal experience. A sandbag bunker flying the Georgian flag manned with Georgian police stands only a couple hundred yards from a similar Russian bunker. It is hard for me to believe that peaceful and cosmopolitan Tbilisi is only 30 miles behind me.

I see a Russian checkpoint flying a Russian flag in an area that is internationally recognized to be inside the Republic of Georgia. It’s the 21st century version of the 20th century Cold War front line. Beyond my line of sight, I am told, there are advanced S300 anti-aircraft systems, BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and SS-21 Scarab tactical ballistic missiles—all allegedly present in South Ossetia and within striking distance of Tbilisi.

From the checkpoint, Russia’s newest military base can clearly be seen less than a mile away. Off in the distance, I see a new road is being constructed over the mountain linking Russia’s new military base with South Ossetia’s provincial capital of Tskhinvali. Sadly, none of this looks temporary—the Russians are there to stay.

Occasionally, one can see a European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) vehicle patrolling the surrounding villages and countryside—but only on the Georgian side of the occupation line. Russia does not allow the EUMM monitors to enter South Ossetia or Abkhazia—another blatant violation of the Six Point Ceasefire Agreement. The Georgians are quite happy to have the EUMM patrolling in Georgia. “It’s about transparency. They show the world that Georgia is not in violation of the cease-fire agreement,” one Georgian official tells me.

In addition to turning South Ossetia into essentially one big Russian military base, in 2008 Russia unilaterally recognized the sovereign independence of the two breakaway provinces. However, an international drive led by Russia for recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been a dismal failure. So far, in addition to Russia, only Nicaragua, Venezuela, and three tiny Pacific Island countries of Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Nauru recognize the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nauru formally recognized the breakaway provinces only after Russia provided it $50 million in international aid.

Sadly, in the same way Russia is failing at getting international recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Georgians are having difficulties getting their European allies to formally recognize Russia’s military presence there as an occupation. If 10,000 Russian troops permanently based on 20 percent of Georgia’s territory is not an occupation, what is? Yet most European nations—including the U.K.—have remained mute. The U.K. and European partners should join France and the United States in a statement unequivocally recognizing the Russian occupation.

This week, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, will be visiting Germany and France. Perhaps Germany could use this as an opportunity to recognize the Russian occupation and call on Russia to finally adhere to the Six Point Ceasefire Agreement that it has been violating since its inception. In France, the new President François Hollande should use Putin’s visit as an opportunity to reaffirm France’s recognition of the occupation and support of Georgia. Under Sarkozy, France was a strong supporter of Georgia. Let us hope that Hollande is willing to pick up where his predecessor left off. Otherwise, the consequences for Georgia will not be good.

Luke Coffey is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and previously served as a Special Adviser in the Ministry of Defence. This article was originally published by Heritage and is used here with permission

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