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Russia plays with words to prolong its stay

By David Matsaberidze
Friday, August 29
The six point ceasefire agreement has become the subject of harsh manipulation by Moscow, which is trying to set extra-documentary terms for pulling back from its “buffer zones”. Russian military formations and heavy artillery have left most of Georgia, but Russian soldiers remain in Poti and maintain a military checkpoint at the connection between the central highway and railway link of Georgia. As neither the six-point accord nor the French President’s subsequent letter of clarification specify exactly what is meant by an area of a “few kilometres,” Russia is using this omission as a hook with which to manipulate the situation by establishing checkpoints around breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia currently maintains military outposts deep inside Georgian territory, well outside breakaway South Ossetia or Abkhazia, in particular in Poti. They also control areas across the Abkhaz administrative border and north of the town of Gori. The closest Russian post to Gori is about five kilometres to its north in the village of Karaleti. Numerous illegal Russian checkpoints have already been set up where these troops remain. Two lines of these will be created, one of eight checkpoints where the Russian peacekeepers claim to have an “extended mandate” and one of ten along the administrative border of South Ossetia. The “buffer zone” will be the area between these two lines. While these zones are called security zones or buffer zones by Russia, Georgia insists that the troops there are occupiers and calls these areas occupied territory. The so-called “zone of responsibility” of Russian peacekeepers established by agreements signed by the sides several years ago included a total of 140 Ossetian and 130 Georgian villages and even included some portions of Georgia’s major east-west highway – in particular at the villages of Shavshvebi and Agara.

The official position of Tbilisi over this issue is already clarified. President Saakashvili has told Reuters that the buffer zones are unacceptable. “There will be no buffer zones. We will never live with any buffer zones. We'll never allow anything like this,” he said. Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia Davit Bakradze stressed on August 27 that “Russia is violating the ceasefire accord by setting up these buffer or security zones and by deploying checkpoints there.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the ceasefire accord, said on the same day that the agreement “must be applied in full.” “Military forces which have not yet withdrawn to the lines they held preceding the hostilities must move without delay,” Reuters quoted Sarkozy as saying at a meeting with France’s top diplomats.

Eka Tkeshelashvili, the Georgian Foreign Minister, stressed that opening of stationary checkpoints outside the zone is a violation of the accord. To support her case she directly cited the six-point ceasefire agreement and the letter of clarification. Tkeshelashvili said that the letter stated “very clearly” that Russian troops have the right to carry out patrolling only a “few kilometres” outside the South Ossetian administrative border. She underlined that the letter did not mention any stationary checkpoints, only patrolling. The letter says that neither the town of Gori nor the key east-west highway can be included in these unquantified “few kilometres”. Russia, however, has stated that “the zone of Russian peacekeepers’ responsibility” would be much wider than the 15-km radius around Tskhinvali, and Russia also claims to be acting within the framework of the six-point accord.

The general staff of the Russian armed forces has declared that its troops are “in the final stage of pull back” from Georgia proper, but made it clear that they would remain in buffer zones in the vicinity of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “The Russian Army is acting strictly in accordance with the international agreements and we have started the final stage of the pull back of the Russian troops to the planned positions,” Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, said at a news conference in Moscow on August 22. According to him “Russian troops are performing a peacekeeping operation” in upper Kodori Gorge and have also established checkpoints north of the Enguri river which forms part of the administrative border between breakaway Abkhazia and Georgia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Moscow is ready to withdraw its military units from these “buffer zones” if “reliable international control” is established there, which would prevent possible Georgian attacks on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As Lavrov told journalists in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on August 27, “As South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence is already recognized by Russia, we have no intention of maintaining our peacekeepers outside those Republics [in Georgia proper] forever.” Lavrov confirmed Russia’s readiness to establish “practical cooperation” between Russian troops and international monitors in order “to agree on a regime within this zone.” According to Lavrov this will be exercised through UN and OSCE monitors in these regions, while “the Russian side will be ready to launch discussions on a timetable and other aspects of regulating control within the security zones.”

As well as entrenching its forces within these “buffer zones” Russia is objecting to the presence of Western military vessels in the Black Sea. Three NATO warships entered the Black Sea on August 21 in a move which had nothing with the current crisis in Georgia, an official at NATO's military command stressed. They are “conducting a pre-planned routine visit to the Black Sea region to interact and exercise with our NATO partners Romania and Bulgaria, which is an important feature of our routine planning,” Vice-Adm. Pim Bedet, Deputy Commander at Allied Maritime Headquarters in Northwood, England, said, as quoted by Associated Press. The three NATO military ships are the Spanish Almirante Don Juan Bordon the German F214-Lubeck and the Polish ORP General K Pulaski. Russia’s Black Sea fleet continues patrolling not far from the Abkhaz shore, close to the area these ships have entered. “We do not think it [the presence of other vessels] really helps to stabilize the situation in the area, because the situation is currently under the control of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” Anatoly Novogotsyn remarked. Two U.S. Navy ships, guided missile destroyer USS McFaul and a U.S. Coastguard cutter, have also entered the Georgian sector of the Black Sea waters, under the U.S. European Command.

The Russians have dug themselves in in Poti. Their checkpoints guard the entrance to the city and the territory of Nabada. They have heavy weapons and artillery with them. Journalists are prohibited from entering the Russian-controlled sector, and the occupiers will not provide news outlets with any comment.