In April 2008, sporadic violence escalated into a short, intense, full-scale, five-day war between Georgia and Russia.
Conflict between the Georgian government and Osset and Abkhaz separatists had plagued the region since the early 1990s. Soviet, and later Russian forces, often provided support to the separatists. After the war in1991/1992, the Joint Control Commission, Joint Peacekeeping Forces, and the CSCE/OSCE served as conflict management mechanisms. In 1994 the Georgian government launched a large anti-smuggling campaign in and around South Ossetia, which increased the number of Georgian troops in the area. South Osset leaders saw this as an attack on their independence and security. Another event that triggered violence was Georgian claims that Russia was supplying South Ossetia with weapons. Even though a cease-fire was in place, relations between Georgia and Russia remained tense and were fueled by continuing violent incidents along the lines separating South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia.
March 2007: Rockets landed in the Kodori Gorge, the only area in Abkhazia then under Georgian government control. Russia denied any involvement, and a UN report on the incident was inconclusive.
August 2007: Georgia asserted that a Russian aircraft entered its airspace and fired a missile that landed near Tsitelbani, 30 miles from Tbilisi. No casualties resulted. Russia denied any role, despite radar evidence provided by Georgian authorities.
April 2008: An unmanned Georgian military reconnaissance drone was shot down over Abkhazia. Georgia claimed that a Russian fighter had shot down the aircraft, and Saakashvili telephoned Russian President Putin to complain. Russia claimed that the drone flight violated ceasefire agreements and that Abkhaz forces had shot down the drone. A UNMission in Georgia (UNOMIG) investigation completed in May concluded that a Russian aircraft had shot down the drone. UNOMIG also noted that under the Moscow Ceasefire Agreement, only CIS peacekeeping forces were permitted to keep Georgian and Abkhaz forces apart. Russian enforcement actions were therefore inconsistent with the Ceasefire Agreement. At the same time, Georgian drone over flights of the zone of conflict were also deemed a breach of the Agreement. Meanwhile, there were reports that Russia had significantly reinforced its troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
April 2008: Georgia suspended bilateral talks with Moscow on Russian entry into the World Trade Organization and threatened to block Russian entry, in response to Russian strengthening of its ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia also withdrew from a bilateral air defense agreement with Russia and from a CIS Air Defense Agreement. Georgia had previously withdrawn from the CIS Defense Ministers’ Council.
August 2008: Attacks and exchanges of fire including artillery between South Ossetian and Georgian forces intensified. At no point during the run-up to the outbreak of violence did either Georgia or Russia take their grievances and concerns about security to the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center as called for by the Charter of Paris or to the UN Security Council as called for by the UN Charter. Both parties appeared to be readying themselves for war, rather than seeking a negotiated solution to their differences.
August 7-8: Georgia moved armor and artillery towards South Ossetia. A Georgian artillery and ground attack on South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali followed. Meanwhile, Russian forces entered South Ossetia from Russia through the Roki Tunnel. Georgia claimed that Russia started moving forces as early as August 6, while Russia asserted that it acted only after the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali. Georgian forces entered Tskhinvali August 8, but were quickly pushed out by Russian artillery and air attacks. Two more Georgian efforts to assault Tskhinvali over the next two days failed, with heavy losses.
The war widened. Abkhaz forces seized the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia still held by Georgia. Russian and South Ossetian militia took the remainder of South Ossetia retained by the Tbilisi government. Russia sent additional forces to Abkhazia and Russian naval units operated off the coast of Georgia. Russian forces also pushed into the undisputed regions of Georgia, including the Black Sea port of Poti, the western town of Senakiand the central crossroads city of Gori. Russian forces established“security zones” on Georgian territory beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The EU sponsored areport by an international fact-finding team which was presented in 2009.
Attempts at conflict management
The UN Security Council and OSCE Permanent Council were unable to make any progress toward a ceasefire, due to Russian opposition to any resolution that affirmed Georgia’s territorial integrity.
On August 10-11, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Holder of the EU Presidency, and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, the OSCE Ci O, traveled to Georgia and presented a jointly drafted plan for a cease-fire, after which they traveled to Moscow on August 12 to present the plan to Russia’s leaders. They were joined in Moscow by French President Sarkozy, who worked out a 6-point ceasefire arrangement first with Russian President Medvedev in Moscow, then with Georgian President Saakashvili in Tbilisi on August 13.
U. S. Secretary of State Rice traveled to Tbilisi and provided assurances on interpretation of the agreement that convinced Saakashvili to accept it.
Russian President Medvedev recognized the independence of the two separatist republics on August 27. Western states were highly critical, and the decision was condemned by the OSCE Ci O as a violation of fundamental OSCE principles.
The French president mediated an agreement on September 8 for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian areas outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the deployment of an EU monitoring mission (which was not allowed access to Abkhazia or South Ossetia).
The OSCE, UN and EU have co-chaired a series of meetings in Geneva since October 2008 bringing together Georgia, Russia the U. S., and representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia, satisfied by its achievements during and since the conflict, has seen little urgency in addressing either the short- or longer-term issues resulting from the war. The one productive outcome so far has been agreement on an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which has met monthly in Ergneti (Georgia).
Efforts to maintain an international monitoring role in the conflict areas have been blocked by Russia, which has opposed a mandate for, or the entry of, any group based on Georgian territorial integrity. Thus, the entry of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, staff from the OSCEMission in Georgia, OSCE observers, or EU military observers was not allowed.
OSCE involvement in Georgia was limited further when Russia blocked renewal of the OSCE Mission in Georgia’s mandate in the Permanent Council. The Mission shut down at the end of 2008. Russia also used its veto in the UN Security Council to block renewal of the UNOMIG mandate in June2009.
In 2010, the OSCE’s Special Envoy for conflict regions, Bolat Nurgaliev, sought to establish regular OSCE visits to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Establishing these visits could be the first step towards reestablishing an OSCE presence in Georgia and its conflict areas. Tskhinvali officials refused to allow OSCE observers to enter the breakaway territories.
The EU Monitoring Mission became the only monitors on the ground, although even they were not allowed into the separatist areas.
Russian unilateral actions
Russian troops have unilaterally demarcated parts of the Georgia-South Ossetia "border," adding to the areas under South Ossetian-control and closing it off with fences and barbed wire. States friendly to Georgia and the EUMM have been unwilling or unable to prevent these further intrusions into Georgia's territory. IPRM meetings have addressed it, but deadlocked on the issue. The fencing has also been a major issue in the Geneva discussions. Earlier, OSCE Ci O Kozhara on a visit to Georgia had expressed concern over the erection of fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, which created serious obstacles for freedom of movement of local people.
The war and its aftermath demonstrated an acute failure of international institutions and political commitments designed to prevent and manage crises and conflicts like this one. International commitments that were to have protected human rights were also violated. International monitoring bodies were also dismantled one by one.
The Zonkari dam stores 40 million cubic meters of water for irrigation purposes. At the Geneva International Discussions on 26 June2013, the OSCE Chair Special Representative welcomed the fact that the water project in Zonkari was nearly completed, with the gates of the Zonkari Dam fully functioning, and stressed the need to appoint a responsible operator on the South Ossetian side to manage and maintain the site. (OSCE/Emmanuel Anquetil)
Meanwhile, the mechanisms established after the war, the Geneva discussions and IPRM, address symptoms of the unresolved conflict -- freedom of movement/fencing, missing persons, infrastructure -- but not the underlying unresolved political issues.