Cease-fire pact may give Russians cover to stay in Georgia

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2008 

VIENNA, Austria — European security officials think that a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia, brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is so vaguely worded that Russia can argue that it's fulfilling its obligations under the pact, even if it doesn't withdraw troops to the positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.

Russia has continued to keep large numbers of troops in Georgia and is building permanent checkpoints there. Russian officials said Wednesday that they planned to construct a "security zone" along the border of South Ossetia, the pro-Russian breakaway Georgian province where fighting began, that will include 18 checkpoints manned by hundreds of soldiers.

Russian troops also were preparing ground Wednesday for what residents think will be two new checkpoints near the strategic Black Sea port of Poti and were building a sentry post 30 miles from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Both locations are far from where the fighting occurred.

Georgia and its allies argue that the new installations violate the agreement, which they believe called for all Russian troops to be out of the country by now.

However, security officials who are familiar with the document said that it allowed Russia to keep "peacekeepers" on the ground, without defining their responsibilities and who they'd be. It also allows the "peacekeepers" to pursue "security measures," without defining what those might entail.

"Russia has everything they need in those principles," said one European security expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Russia also is benefitting from confusion over how many troops it had in Georgia before the fighting broke out.

Under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security organization to which Russia belongs, an armed peacekeeping force under Russian command had been in South Ossetia for years.

That joint force comprised 500 troops each from Russia and Georgia as well as the ethnically connected enclaves of South Ossetia in Georgia and North Ossetia in Russia.

The peacekeepers ostensibly were being monitored by eight unarmed military monitors, including one Russian, under the auspices of the OSCE. Security officials acknowledge, however, that eight monitors couldn't keep track of everything that 2,000 peacekeepers were doing.

Now, European officials said, it's hard to know how many Russian troops were already in Georgia before the fighting began.

Officials blame the vagueness of the agreement on the way it was negotiated.

An original draft, proposed to Russian leaders by Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister and the OSCE chairman, contained four points, a cornerstone of which was respect for Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty, including the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Then Sarkozy and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner cranked up their diplomatic activity. Acting on behalf of the European Union — France holds the rotating EU presidency — they negotiated intensely with the Georgian and Russian leaders in the days after the OSCE made its proposal.

By the time Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a cease-fire agreement Aug. 12, the four-point plan had become a six-point plan. The premise of Georgian territorial integrity and sovereignty had disappeared and the discussion of "peacekeepers" and "security measures" added.

"The Russians have very specific ideas, and they control the situation on the ground," said a security expert with detailed knowledge of the conflict zone, who also asked not to be identified.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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