Russia's occupation of Georgian territory must end

The West needs to be bolder in calling for an end to Russian imperialism in the Caucasus.

Pushkin's statue in Tskhinval, South Ossetia
Daniel Hamilton
On 25 May 2011 15:00

It is a little under three years since the Russian Federation’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia which claimed the lives of more than 400 innocent civilians.

While the conflict has received little international attention of late, the ongoing Russian occupation of Georgian sovereign territory remains one of Europe’s bloodiest running sores. As I write, 20 percent of Georgia’s territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains under the control of the Russian army.

Standing on the line of occupation between the area under the control of the Georgian central government and the breakaway province of South Ossetia, the view is much the same as any other picture-postcard scene from the Caucasus. 

Drenched in the early spring sun, the rugged and sparsely-vegetated mountains which form the dividing line between democracy and dictatorship are marked by an eerie quiet which belies their status as an active conflict zone. The true scale of the devastation wrought on South Ossetia is, however, hard to comprehend.

During the conflict in the early 1990s, which saw the newly-independent Georgian government lose control of South Ossetia to Russian-backed separatists, more than 123,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The 2008 conflict only served to further hasten the departure of Georgians from the region.

Of the 17,500 who were in South Ossetia in early 2008, fewer than 2,000 remain today. Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, a six point ceasefire was agreed with Georgia under the leadership of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Each of the six provisions – including commitments “not to resort to force” and to withdraw “military forces... to lines held prior” to the 2008 conflict – have been violated by the Kremlin.

Rather than seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict, Russia has signed a Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the South Ossetian junta which allows for thousands of Russian troops to remain in the province under the auspices of “peacekeeping”. 

At the end of January, I personally witnessed the manifestation of this “cooperation” with my own eyes in the form of a vast Russian military base being constructed no more than a few hundred metres from Georgian-controlled territory.

Georgia has, however, honoured its part of the bargain, scaling back troop deployments close to the Line of Occupation with South Ossetia and issuing repeated invitations to the Russian Federation to find a peaceful solution to the dispute. President Saakashvili, in a speech to the European Parliament in November, pledged “never to use force” to restore Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty.

But the Russian violations simply continue.

On Wednesday evening, a group of Russian troops opened fire on a group of fifteen Georgian civilians gathering the much sought-after jonjoli herb from a forest area close to the line of occupation.  No warning shots were fired.

A seventeen year old boy was struck in the stomach by bullets and is in a critical condition while an older man has received intensive medical treatment for his injuries. In a separate incident later the same day, Russian troops arrested and illegally imprisoned four young men who were walking close to the border.

They were released this morning. This outrageous provocation on the part of the Russian army must not be ignored. Indeed, it must serve as an urgent reminder of the need for international engagement in the region in order to bring the conflict to a conclusion. It is clear that, despite the efforts of the Georgian government to enter into meaningful dialogue with the Kremlin, the cease-fire process has comprehensively failed.

A recent bi-partisan motion in the United States Senate by Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen reinforcing the US government’s position in support of the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia and inviolability of its borders” formally recognises South Ossetia as a region “occupied by the Russian Federation”.

The British Foreign Secretary William Hague has personally travelled to the town of Gori which was occupied by Russian forces for several days in 2008 to restate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s long-held policy of refusing to “recognise the unilateral declarations of independence” issued by both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Furthermore, NATO’s position on the issue remains clear, with the alliance recently issuing a statement reinforcing its “continued support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”.

While pro-Kremlin observers will undoubtedly cast suspicion on the ability of the central Georgian government to bring South Ossetia back into its political mainstream, one only need look at the successful reintegration of the south-western province of Adjara.

Retaken by Tbilisi in 2004 after years of military rule under Russian-backed placeman Aslan Abashidze, it has shaken off its previous reputation as a haven for drug and weapons smuggling and human trafficking and is now a booming tourist resort.

It is now time for the United States and European Union governments to acknowledge that their softly-softly approach in respect of South Ossetia has failed. What Georgia needs now is not strongly-worded – yet ultimately empty – declarations of support, but real action to end the Russian occupation of its territory. Western governments must actively coordinate their diplomatic efforts on this issue in order to forcefully communicate the strength of their opposition to Russia’s policy in the region.

A positive starting point in this respect would be the appointment of a NATO-sponsored envoy. Such an envoy would be able to communicate the weight of US and EU objections to the continuing occupation of South Ossetia, while at the same time being able to offer the promise of substantial economic investment and minority language rights and regional autonomy for non-Georgians living in the region.

As Georgia surges forward on a path of economic liberalisation and democracy, the West must not allow it to be held captive by a Russian leadership hell-bent on clinging on to the last vestiges of its “sphere of influence”. 

Daniel Hamilton is Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch and an expert on the Balkans and the Caucasus. He writes in a personal capacity. Follow him at @danielrhamilton 

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