Sarkozy checks on Georgia's uneasy peace

6th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Tbilisi's main square was given a makeover to welcome French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week, but discontent remains that the peace deal he struck to end the Georgia-Russia war has not been enforced.

While workers hurried to redecorate the square's grand facades in time, Russian troops manned their posts just an hour's drive away -- a reminder that although Sarkozy helped end the fighting in 2008, the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow will not be glossed over so easily.

Russian forces have not withdrawn to their pre-war positions as the Sarkozy deal stipulated, but have instead entrenched themselves at permanent bases in the Moscow-backed rebel provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the focus of the five-day showdown.

The Kremlin recognised both regions as independent right after the war, positioning itself as their protector against "Georgian aggression" and insisting the world must accept the "new realities" on the ground.

Officials in the pro-Western administration in Tbilisi say they are grateful to Sarkozy for halting the Russian army's advance into their country after it crushed a Georgian attempt to take back South Ossetia.

But they complain that Moscow's forces are "occupying" the breakaway territories in violation of the ceasefire deal.

"We saved our democracy and independence but we still have 20 percent of our territory occupied with an even more intensive military presence," said Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Tornike Gordadze.

He said that Russia was not allowing European Union peace monitors -- whose mission was launched under the terms of the Sarkozy deal -- to patrol in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and was also preventing refugees from returning to their homes.

Analysts say however that there are limits to the pressure that can be exerted by Western leaders who want to ensure cordial relations with the powerful, energy-rich Russian state.

"There's simply not much more the US and EU can do but make statements and bring the topic up at high-level meetings because they have very little real leverage over Moscow," said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group.

Regular talks in Geneva, also initiated by the Sarkozy agreement, have continued for three years with few results.

"Sarkozy can say that he stopped the war, but the reality is that it's extremely unlikely that the ceasefire agreement will be fulfilled in the near future unless there's a sea change in Russia," said Sheets.

Gordadze accepted that Western countries would not jeopardise their own interests on behalf of a small Caucasus state.

"We are realistic and we understand there will be no big fight between the West and Russia. But to modernise its economy, Russia will need the West and that will give a chance for the West to impose some conditionality," he said.

Georgia's post-war tactics have been described as "strategic patience", while President Mikheil Saakashvili has publicly declared that he will not use force against the rebel territories again.

"I am afraid that so-called 'strategic patience' is the only thing Georgia can do. Any other attempt to enforce the ceasefire agreement is not a viable option," said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Chatham House think tank.

But Maxim Gundjia, the foreign minister in the Abkhaz breakaway administration, said Sarkozy should urge Saakashvili to accept the "new realities".

"Realistically he could encourage Georgia to sign a non-use-of-force agreement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia instead of, as Georgia proposed, signing it with Russia only," Gundjia said.

Near the closest Russian checkpoint to the Georgian capital, just outside the town of Akhalgori which was seized during the conflict in 2008, locals remain fearful and pessimistic about the potential impact of Western pressure.

"I don't think Sarkozy or someone else can change the situation," said one man on the road to the Russian military post who gave his name as Niko.

"The Russians do what they want and don't listen to anyone," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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