EU to send observers into the Georgian minefield
If and when the mission deploys, it will be under a mandate which raises as many questions as it answers.
Brussels -- If European Union foreign ministers approve a ceasefire observation mission to Georgia as expected on Monday, they will be stepping into a diplomatic minefield.
Officials in Brussels say that if the bloc does not mandate its observers to cover the whole territory of Georgia, including, crucially, the rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it will appear to be accepting their independence before international peace talks have even begun.
But if the mandate does cover the breakaway regions, the EU will risk an outright rejection of its peace initiative from Russia -- something which would cause it a massive loss of face.
"The only thing the EU can do is mandate observers for the whole territory of Georgia, otherwise the main point of the negotiation process would be taken away before it started," said professor Hans-Henning Schroeder, head of research on Russia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "But they risk losing credibility if they demand what they can't deliver. If Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not ready to accept EU observers, the EU has no way to push them through."
Last Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, brokered in Moscow a deal to end Russia's current military occupation of Georgia.
Under the deal, Russia is meant to pull its troops out of the Georgian port of Poti by Sept. 15, and retreat from undisputed parts of Georgia "within 10 days of the deployment of international mechanisms, including at least 200 EU observers, who should be in place by Oct. 1 at the latest."
Those observers will be deployed "in the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia," the deal states.
Diplomats say that given the extremely short deadline, the EU's member states have rushed to offer civilian and military experts, with the Baltic states, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden reportedly willing to contribute.
But the key issue remains those experts' mandate, with some EU states pushing for the bloc to stress that it wants them to cover the whole of Georgia, including the breakaway regions.
That is because the EU refuses to recognize their independence and so cannot treat them as anything but integral parts of Georgia.
But the question is not covered in the pull-out plan agreed by Sarkozy -- an omission which analysts say puts the mission on very delicate ground.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that any EU promises to send observers into the breakaway territories were simply "unscrupulous" and false.
"There's nothing the EU can do," said Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute of International Relations. "The Russians are not going to leave (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and the EU is not going to deploy forces to intervene: It's a fait accompli."
That leaves the EU's ministers walking a tightrope between approving a mandate, which is so explicit that it provokes Russia into canceling its withdrawal, and approving one which is so vague it appears to be recognizing the rebels' independence.
And that, in turn, means that when the mission deploys, it will be under a mandate which raises as many questions as it answers.
"The EU's line is that Georgia is an independent and sovereign state so we can't decide if they'll give up their claim to the territories or not," said Piotr Kaczynski of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "If (the Georgian government) were to recognize them, I'm sure the EU would have no problem in following suit. But that's not likely any time soon -- and until then, this ambiguity is there."