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10 years since Russia’s Military Aggression and Occupation of Georgian Territories: Ways to Sustainable Peace and Security in Georgia
In August 2008 Georgia fell victim to open military aggression by the Russian Federation that resulted in illegal occupation of Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. Russia’s large-scale military invasion in Georgia in blatant violation of fundamental norms and principles of international law served as a direct attack on European security and the international order. Few years later the same pattern was used against Ukraine. These events have made it crucial to duly assess the challenges emanating from Russia and the unresolved conflicts with the aim to think of the ways for lasting peace and security.
RUSSIA’S MILITARY INVASION IN GEORGIA IN 2008
Russian aggression against Georgia was premeditated and thoroughly calculated. Moscow had started preparation long before the actual war. In 2006 Russia built a military base in Java in the North of Tskhinvali. Later in the beginning of 2008 Moscow unilaterally lifted CIS arms and economic embargo on two Georgian regions and established the formal ties with the illegal regimes. In May-June 2008, Kremlin started sending railroad troops, deploying military forces and offensive weaponry in Abkhazia region. These developments sharply escalated the situation on the ground. In the period right before the invasion, in July 2008 Russia conduced a large-scale military exercise “Caucasus 2008” near the Georgian border with involvement of 8000 troops and 700 armored fighting vehicles. Russian troops did not leave the area after the exercise was finished. Vladimir Putin himself did not try to hide the fact that the plan for military invasion existed about two years before the war: “There was a plan in place, and I think it is no secret that Russian forces acted in accordance with it. The general staff drew up this plan somewhere in late 2006 or early 2007. I approved it,” – said Putin.
Ten years ago the provocations started with massive attacks on Georgian controlled villages by Russian-backed Ossetian volunteers who used machine guns and grenade launchers against the local civilian population. The escalation of armed conflict was directly preceded by the units of Russia’s 58th Army crossing the international border of Georgia through the Roki Tunnel on 7 August 2008. At the same time Russian forces crossed the state border of Georgia into Abkhazia region. With an artificial pretext of protecting the Russian citizens on Georgian soil (i.e. the residents of Georgia who became victims of Russia’s illegal passportization), Moscow started a large-scale attack against the sovereign country on land, at sea, by air, and via cyberspace. Russian aviation bombed more than 20 cities and villages throughout the whole territory of Georgia, including Tbilisi and Kutaisi. 165 bombs and missiles were dropped using SU-24, SU-25, SU-27, MIG-29 type military aircraft and TU-22M strategic bombers. Cluster bombs and other types of weapons banned by the international agreements were also used by Russian forces. As a consequence of Russia’s open aggression hundreds of people, including civilians were killed and wounded, 53 Georgian villages were cleansed, houses of 35 000 people were burnt and destroyed. Russia additionally occupied 125 Georgian controlled villages. The war was accompanied by yet another ethnic cleansing of Georgians, creating a wave of 130 thousand IDPs fleeing the villages under shelling and aviation fire. It is obvious that Russia’s unrestrained forces would have gone further if the international society did not take a firm stance.
On 12 August 2008, the EU Presidency successfully mediated a ceasefire between Georgia and Russia. On behalf of the EU, the President of France Nicolas Sarkozy was directly mediating the process. The Ceasefire Agreement laid a foundation for stopping Russia’s large-scale military aggression against Georgia. Nevertheless, Moscow continued bombing and attacking of Georgian villages and cities even after the conclusion of the Ceasefire Agreement.
The EU mediated 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement stipulates that Russia and Georgia should withdraw their forces to the positions that they had held before the war. However, despite the continuous calls from the international community, Russia, up to this point, continues violating the Agreement. While Georgia has implemented all provisions of the ceasefire, Moscow has further reinforced its illegal military presence in both Georgian regions destabilizing the security environment in entire Europe. Following the military invasion the Russian Federation recognized the so-called independence of Georgia’s occupied regions in gross violation of the fundamental norms and principles of international law, such as inviolability of internationally recognized borders and territorial integrity of sovereign states. Through its illegal attempts to redraw the borders in Europe by force Russia directly attacked the rules-based international order.
In 2008 Moscow created a dangerous precedent that was practiced in Ukraine later. These events clearly demonstrate that the August 2008 war was not an isolated case. These steps serve as a testing ground for Moscow to evaluate the decisiveness of international community to stand up for the peace and security, and the fundamental principles of international law.
SITUATION AFTER 10 YEARS OF RUSSIA-GEORGIA WAR
10 years since its military aggression Russia still continues the illegal occupation of 20% of Georgian territory. Moreover, Russia has intensified the steps towards factual annexation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, seeking full incorporation of Georgia’s indivisible regions into its military, political and economic systems in full disregard for the international law.
For the past 10 years the security and human rights situation in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia as well as in adjacent territories to the occupation line has further aggravated. The Russian Federation has been strengthening its illegal military presence on Georgian soil. In violation of the Ceasefire Agreement it holds considerable number of military personnel in both regions, more specifically, approximately 4500 military and 1300 FSB personnel in each of them. Russia’s illegal military bases in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions are equipped with contemporary and sophisticated offensive weaponry, including tanks, various armored vehicles, launch rocket systems as well as SA and SS missile systems SA10 Grumble and SS21 Scarab. These army divisions are regularly participating in illegal military drills in the occupied territories. Additionally, the airspace of Georgia is constantly being violated by the Russian aircrafts.
Besides, Russia has been provoking Georgia by continuous fortification of the occupation line through installation of barbed wire fences and other artificial barriers dividing families and depriving the local population of access to their property and agricultural lands, healthcare and emergency services, as well as religious sites and cemeteries. The freedom of movement of locals has been further restricted following the closure of the so-called crossing points. Continuous illegal detentions and kidnappings along the occupation line have become another demonstration of grave human rights violations on the ground.
Ethnic Georgians who remained in the occupied territories are now the subject of intensified discrimination. Russia and its occupation regimes are making the lives of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia unbearable and there are no international mechanisms operating on the ground to effectively address these challenges. One of the sensitive issues that Russia and the occupation regimes in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali reject to address concerns the grave violations of right to education in native language. They have been gradually closing all Georgian schools or changing the language of instruction into Russian. These developments drastically affected the academic performance of the schoolchildren, not mentioning the linguistic discrimination that represent yet another attack against the identity and dignity of ethnic Georgian population occupied regions.
Against this background, hundreds of thousands of IDPs and refugees expelled as a result of ethnic cleansing still continue to be deprived of the right to safe and dignified return to their homes. Moreover, both occupation regimes have been actively attempting to remove Georgian trace from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia by tearing down homes of ethnic Georgians, changing the names of towns, villages and streets.
The most tragic incidents however were connected to the deprivation of the right to life, more specifically, to the murder of Georgian IDPs Archil Tatunashvili, Giga Otkhozoria, and Davit Basharuli. In all three cases, the murder was committed by representatives of the occupation regimes in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. These are the cases of brutal torture on the grounds of ethnicity. This serves as yet another demonstration of how far the sense of impunity has progressed in the occupied territories. This tendency is adding further stimulus to the ethnically driven violence in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. For this very reason the Government of Georgia introduced the Otkhzoria-Tatunashvili List as a preventive step to avoid further aggravation of situation through imposing the restrictive measures on the individuals responsible for human rights abuses in the occupied regions.
The scope of these multilayer violations of the fundamental human rights is constantly increasing and it has to do with the deeply embedded sense of impunity that has directly resulted from the deliberate policy of Russia – the power exercising an effective control over these regions. And all these are happening in the circumstances when Russia does not allow the access of relevant international human rights mechanisms to Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia to properly assess the situation on the ground.
The grave security and humanitarian conditions in Georgia’s occupied regions described above is a vivid demonstration of why the situation on the ground cannot be labelled as peaceful.
GEORGIA’S PEACE POLICY
In response to all these concerning developments and Russia’s constant violations, the Government of Georgia firmly pursues the peaceful conflict resolution policy that is directed towards the de-occupation of Georgian regions, on the one hand, and reconciliation and confidence building between the communities divided by occupation lines, on the other.
The Georgian Government remains in full compliance with the EU mediated 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement. Georgia has several times unilaterally reaffirmed the non-use of force commitment and been implementing this principle, still awaiting the reciprocity from the Russian side.
The Government of Georgia is trying to fully utilize the peace negotiations formats to reach tangible results for the lasting peace, security and human rights protection of conflict-affected population on the ground.
Georgia spares no effort to facilitate substantial negotiations in the Geneva International Discussions that is a unique and inclusive format with co-chairmanship of the EU, UN, OSCE and participation of the US established to dully address the security and humanitarian challenges stemming from the unresolved conflict between Georgia and Russia in full respect for the 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement. For the last 10 years tremendous efforts have been made to achieve progress on the issues of non-use of force, establishment of international security arrangements in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions aimed at providing security and stability on the ground, and the safe and dignified return of IDPs and refugees.
Against the background of daily provocations on the ground the role of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms (IPRMs) in Gali and Ergneti as well as the 24/7 hotline mechanism are crucial in order to avoid the escalation of tensions. Georgia is determined to further continue its proactive participation in IPRMs to ensure a timely and adequate response to the security challenges, including incidents and find proper solutions for the safety and humanitarian needs of the conflict-affected people on the ground.
Besides, the Government of Georgia firmly pursues its cooperation with the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM), which is the only international mechanism on the ground providing the international society with the accurate information about the situation on the ground and violations of Ceasefire Agreement by Russia. Although the EUMM is deprived of the possibility to enter the occupied regions and fully implement its mandate, the Mission’s activities are decisive in preventing the escalation of tensions and addressing the safety of the local population.
Despite Russia’s non-compliance with its international obligations and provocative steps, Georgia continues its attempts to find ways for dialogue and de-escalation with the Russian Federation.
At the same time, Georgia remains active in the realm of its engagement policy with the people living in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. The Government intensifies its efforts for reconciliation among the war-torn communities and is determined to share the benefits of country’s development to the people living across the occupation line.
In this light, just recently the Government of Georgia has introduced the new peace initiative “A Step to a Better Future” with the aim to improve humanitarian and socio-economic conditions of people living in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and foster people-to-people contacts, interaction and confidence building between the divided societies. The initiative represents the latest attempt of the Government of Georgia to ensure the efficiency of its reconciliation and engagement policy. More specifically, the package seeks to enhance and simplify trade along the dividing lines, and create additional opportunities for quality education and access at every level of education both at home and abroad. The initiative also envisages the creation of mechanism for simplifying access to the benefits and services available to Georgia resulting from the country’s development and progress on its path to the European integration.
Sustainable Development despite Ongoing Occupation
These 10 years after the war have been the years of permanent struggle. However, Georgia still managed to achieve significant progress in democratic transition and good governance, and laid a solid ground for sustainable economic development.
Georgia is actively participating in the development of strategic transport corridors connecting Asia with Europe. Development of these projects will reinforce Georgia’s transit potential, accelerate and increase cargo flow, ensure better access to the logistic, industrial and touristic facilities. The economic policy of Georgia is directed at ensuring attractive business and investment climate. The reforms implemented during the recent years and Government’s vision for upcoming years is fully in line with Georgia’s aspirations to become a heaven for business and investment activities. Low taxes, streamlined regulations, minimum bureaucracy, low level of corruption are among factors that create Georgia’s favorable business environment.
At the same time, Georgia has succeeded in the process of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, showing unwavering commitment of Georgian people towards the shared values and democratic future of their country. This is eloquently attested to in the recently adopted 2018-2020 Freedom, Rapid Development and Prosperity Government Program. The program builds on the remarkable progress Georgia has achieved over the past several years and aims at further acceleration of the reforms that have been transforming Georgia into a fully-fledged European democracy. To achieve these ambitious goals, the vision of the government will be founded on the following principles:
1. Fulfilment of the historic choice of the Georgian people by ensuring irreversible integration into European and Euro-Atlantic space;
2. Thorough and innovative reforms in all areas that will create a socially responsible economic growth, with the benefits felt by every family and every citizen, thus eliminating poverty;
3. The small government to ensure flexible and effective bureaucracy, i.e. governmental institutions with a high level transparency, which are placed under strong public and institutional control, among others in terms of anti-corruption;
4. Education, youth and innovation to bring Georgia into the league of most advanced states with educated, motivated and entrepreneurship spirited youth;
5. Freedom, dignity, prosperity and opportunities for every individual in order to ensure that all efforts and initiatives of the Government are focused on these principles.
Thus, throughout the last ten years, Georgia has proved that it is a stable, democratic country, which is able to achieve success despite the ongoing occupation of its territories. In the circumstances of daily provocations, Georgia has made its progress on the path towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration irreversible.
Georgia remains consistent on the path of full integration into the European Union and will use all the existing mechanisms of cooperation to ensure more comprehensive, and transparent integration process with the EU. Two years after coming into effect of the Association Agreement with the DCFTA, Georgia enjoys a qualitatively new stage in partnership with the EU. Trade has picked up with many items of Georgian agriculture and other products finding their way to the European market, as have people-to-people contacts. With intensification of integration process in mind, the Government of Georgia initiated an ambitious Roadmap that has the potential to ensure EU integration at a faster rate and a wider scope by going beyond the provisions of the EU-Georgia Association deal. Apart from concrete practical benefits, visa free regime bears a tremendous symbolic and political value for Georgia as it brings the Georgian people even closer to the European family and manifests strong political support of the EU towards Georgia’s European path.
For the last 10 years, Georgia has been enhancing its cooperation with the NATO and taking substantial steps towards the integration in the Alliance that is a potent guarantor of country’s lasting security and stable development. Hence, full-fledged integration into NATO is an important task of Georgia’s foreign and security policy. Since the restoration of Georgia’s independence, Georgia has been intensifying relations with the Alliance and implementing domestic reforms in the spheres of defense and security to bring our country closer to NATO standards. All these efforts have been paying off, as has been attested by the 2008 Bucharest Declaration, as well as 2014 Substantial NATO-Georgia Package, which manifested itself in the opening of the Joint Training and Evaluation Center and a number of other documents. As an aspirant country and a reliable partner, Georgia is actively engaged in strategic discussions with the Alliance on the Black Sea security and is ready to contribute more to NATO’s efforts in this region.
In this light, it is worth to note that despite huge challenges stemming from Russia’s occupation policy, Georgia has been transformed into a security provider, demonstrating its firm commitment to ensure international security and stability through its valuable contribution to the EU and NATO-led missions.
WAYS TO SUSTAIANBLE PEACE AND SECURITY IN GEORGIA
The progress that Georgia has achieved this far would have been impossible without the enormous support of the international community. These efforts have been essential for Georgia to deal with implications of the August 2008 war and succeed on the path of its democratic choice towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Georgia highly values this strong international support towards the peaceful conflict resolution and democratic transition in the country. The severity of the situation in Georgia’s occupied regions, however, makes it crystal clear that more needs to be done to ensure sustainable peace and security on the ground.
In that regard, it is crucial not to lose the impetus and remain vigilant against the challenges resulting from the destructive behavior of Russia who is not willing to comply with the fundamental norms of international law. Needless to underline that through destabilization of security environment in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, Russia is testing the resolve of the international society as to how far it is willing to go to defend its core principles and values. And this is the kind of challenge that no country can address on its own unless the whole international community stays united and robust.
On its part, the Government of Georgia will further continue its unwavering policy towards the peaceful conflict resolution. Georgia will do its utmost to effectively use the peace negotiations formats and all existing instruments to ensure lasting, sustainable and inclusive peace in Georgia with strong support of the international society.
At the same time it is decisive that the international community stays committed to defending its principles and its resolve to do so will send a strong message to Russia who is trying to undermine the entire rules-based international system. It is obvious that the consequences of the Russian aggression and occupation policy cannot be addressed effectively without strong international response. And the only way to stimulate positive changes on the ground is to maintain the necessity of peaceful conflict resolution in Georgia high on international agenda. Russia should feel the consolidated international stance to comply with its commitments undertaken by the EU mediated 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement and halt its destabilizing activities on Georgian soil.
The 10 years of Russia’s occupation policy has vividly demonstrated that the way towards sustainable peace and security lies on full implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement that envisages withdrawal of Russian forces and creation of international security arrangements on the ground. These are the steps that can be a game changer for conflict transformation and confidence building.
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