Russia sets new limitations on EU observers
Russia limits access to 300 EU monitors in Georgia, leaving their motives in question.
1 October 2008
TBILISI -- As hundreds of European Union monitors prepared to deploy in Georgia on Wednesday, Russia said it would not allow them to enter a buffer zone surrounding separatist South Ossetia.
Tuesday's statement by Russian peacekeeping forces appeared to be another example of Moscow stalling on compliance with a cease-fire agreement it had reached after the August war with Georgia over breakaway South Ossetia.
Russia and Georgia agreed to the EU observer mission as part of an updated cease-fire plan following the war, which ended with Russian and separatist forces in control of South Ossetia and another Moscow-backed breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russian troops remained deep in Georgia for weeks.
As part of the deal between Russia and Georgia, Moscow agreed to withdraw its forces completely from territories outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia within 10 days of the EU monitors' deployment on Wednesday, including a roughly 7-kilometer (4-mile) buffer zone extending southward from South Ossetia's edge.
But the Russian peacekeeping forces' statement said that as of Wednesday, the EU monitoring would take place "up to the southern border of the security zone, which was agreed upon by the parties." The statement said there would be further consultations but gave no indication of when, or even if, Russia would grant the EU monitors access to the zone itself.
The statement came as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Georgia on the eve of the deployment of about 300 EU monitors outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
It appeared to raise questions about when Russia will withdraw its troops from the zone, including those at checkpoints controlling entry from Georgian-controlled territory.
At news conferences in Tbilisi, Solana did not directly answer questions about the Russian statement, but expressed optimism that Moscow would pull its troops back from the security zone in the promised time frame.
"I am optimistic that all parties will comply with the agreement that was signed," Solana said. "We hope very much and we are sure that before October 10th that part of the mission will be completed."
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili also skirted questions about EU access. He stressed that Georgia wants a complete Russian withdrawal.
"We will not be happy until the last Russian soldier gets out of my country," he told a news conference with Solana.
A EU official played down the Russian statement, saying the observers had not expected immediate access throughout the zones surrounding South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "As far as we're concerned, we were supposed to have 200 monitors on the ground by Oct. 1. We have done our job," said the official, who said he was not authorized to give his name for attribution.
The EU observers will be based in four semi-permanent locations, including the central city of Gori, near South Ossetia, and the Black Sea port of Poti, key targets of Russian forces.
Russia has cast Georgia as the aggressor in the war, saying it only responded militarily to defend Russian citizens and peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia from a Georgian offensive that began late on Aug. 7.
Russia still plans to keep around 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it has recognized as independent nations. Moscow had already said it would not allow EU monitors inside the regions themselves.
By MATT SIEGEL
[AP / Expatica]