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Page last updated at 09:05 GMT, Wednesday, 20 August 2008 10:05 UK

Georgia facing reality of defeat

By Thomas de Waal
Institute for War and Peace Reporting

When Russian troops eventually pull out of Georgian towns such as Gori and Zugdidi, ordinary Georgians will heave a sigh of relief.
Russian soldiers guard Georgian prisoners near Poti
Russia's military has emerged a clear victor in the latest conflict

But that will also be the moment that they take on board the fact that the two territories at the heart of the conflict with Moscow, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although formally still regarded internationally as Georgian territory, are now essentially lost to them.

The people who will suffer most in the long term from this conflict are more than 20,000 ethnic Georgians from a mosaic of villages in South Ossetia who have now mostly fled.

Relatively few Georgians left during or after the small-scale 1990-92 conflict over South Ossetia and despite intermittent skirmishes and incidents, neighbourly contacts continued.

Reporters who have passed through many of the villages in the last few days say they are now in ruins.

The Russian authorities and their South Ossetian allies are now saying that they will not allow the Georgians back any time soon.

A Russian foreign ministry statement on August 18 said, "It is clear that some time and not a short period of time must pass in order to heal the wounds and to restore confidence. Only after this, the conditions will be created for discussing practical aspects related to the problems of refugees."

Hundreds of South Ossetians also lost their homes in the Georgian military assault of 7-8 August and, it appears, in the ensuing Russian counter-attack - but they have the small consolation of knowing they can start rebuilding them.

Russian leverage

The prospect is also now much bleaker for the 240,000 or so ethnic Georgians who were registered as displaced from the 1992-3 conflict in Abkhazia.

Refugees from Gori in Tbilisi
Refugees have flooded into Georgia's capital from areas near South Ossetia

Their hopes of return were predicated on a successful peace agreement which now looks more elusive than ever.

Around 50,000 Georgians live in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district under an Abkhaz administration.

So far they have managed to stay in their homes, but their future is also more precarious.

It is not just a matter of Georgian control. It will also be harder now to maintain an international presence in the two disputed regions.

The final point in the six-point ceasefire plan reads: "Pending an international mechanism [in South Ossetia], Russian peacekeeping forces will implement additional security measures."

That effectively puts an end to the former Joint Peacekeeping Forces, which had a Georgian contingent.

It also gives Moscow even more leverage than before over the shape of any security arrangements for the region.

Moscow is already insisting it can have the only real security presence there.

"We are of course not against international peacekeepers... but the problem is that the Abkhaz and the Ossetians do not trust anyone except Russian peacekeepers," Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Unattainable dream

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the only international organization with a mandate in South Ossetia, wants to dispatch an additional 100 monitors to South Ossetia.

Abkhaz fighters
Abkhaz fighters were backed by Russian forces against the Georgians

But Russia has dragged its feet, saying it wanted to agree the terms of their deployment in more detail and the OSCE has so far agreed to send just 20 more monitors.

The OSCE had just nine military monitors on the ground in South Ossetia when fighting started there on 7-8 August.

The European Union, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner taking the lead, also says it want to provide peacekeepers, but Mr Kouchner's Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, admitted this might not work.

"There are no signs of the Russians letting in anyone else," he said.

In Abkhazia, the United Nations has a small contingent of around 130 unarmed monitors, who were bystanders in the recent crisis.

When the Abkhaz, with Russian support, wanted to capture the mountainous Upper Kodori Gorge district from the Georgians, they merely gave the UN monitors there a 24-hour warning to leave.

The EU has approved small aid programmes for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the last few years, but they have looked relatively modest when compared to the vast amount of Russian money coming into both regions.

Abkhazia is bigger and more diverse than South Ossetia with a lively media and many non-governmental organizations.

Many Abkhaz intellectuals dreamed of having some kind of independence free of both Georgia and Russia and with links across the Black Sea to the EU but that now looks unattainable.

'Double standards'

Internationally mediated peace talks over both disputes had stalled and there is little chance of them resuming properly any time soon.

Faced with a tightening Russian grip, Western leaders can only fall back on expressing support for Georgia's right to these territories.

US President George W Bush made this commitment on 16 August, saying: "Georgia's borders should command the same respect as every other nation's. There's no room for debate on this matter."

This becomes a moral argument, with the Russians answering that after supporting Kosovo's unilateral secession from Serbia, the West is guilty of "double standards" in the Caucasus.

Caught in the middle of these international wrangles are the current and former populations of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia Abkhaz, Ossetians and other nationalities such as Armenians on the one hand, and the displaced Georgians on the other.

They often get along fine when they have a chance to engage in low-level meetings arranged by foreign organisations or across market stalls.

Now, unfortunately, they are being wrenched apart further than ever by conflict.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.


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