Interview | Head of EUMM Georgia Talks Abkhazia, S. Ossetia

Russia’s ongoing months-long bloody war in Ukraine has strongly resonated in Georgia, including in the Moscow-backed regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia, where concerns and fears over the resumption of hostilities have grown ever since. The Georgian Dream government reiterated a peace policy toward the Russian-occupied regions and lambasted the opposition for wanting to drag the country into the war. The opposition denied accusations, and in turn criticized the government for playing foul at the hands of Moscow.

The EUMM, an unarmed civilian monitoring mission deployed by the EU Member States to Georgia to contribute to the stabilization on the ground following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, has worked for around 14 years to ensure no return of hostilities. The Mission consists of around 340 staff members, including 220 staff members from 26 different EU member states. The big majority are monitors – patrol members for Administrative Boundary Lines, human security, and compliance patrols.

Civil Georgia has approached Ambassador Marek Szczygieł, Head of the EUMM Georgia, to discuss the situation in and around the occupied regions, frequent arbitrary detentions across dividing lines, the freedom of movement, and rare cases of constructive cooperation between Tbilisi and de facto authorities.

Ambassador Szczygieł, we are speaking today as Russia continues its full-scale attack on Ukraine for more than two months, which has brought seismic shifts to the entire region. In light of this war, what is the security environment on the ground across both Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs)? 

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine dramatically changed the geopolitical situation in Europe. It also has direct or indirect implications on the security environment in which our Mission operates. This year, we will celebrate 14 years since the start of our monitoring activities in Georgia, which began after the 2008 War. This has been a long-term commitment on the side of the European Union to contribute to the security and stability in Georgia and the wider region. Let me underline that EUMM Georgia continues to enjoy strong political support among the EU Member States. It is manifested by the presence of representatives of 26 Member States among our monitors. We keep providing the EU Member States and decision-makers in Brussels with an objective, fact-based assessment of the situation on the ground, including early warning functions with regard to the developments along Administrative Boundary Lines with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, this function is even more critical because of the war in Ukraine. We follow four lines of operations: stabilization, normalization, confidence building, and informing EU policy.

We do not see a deterioration of the situation along the ABLs since the beginning of the Russian invasion on the 24th of February. The security situation remains relatively stable. This fragile condition requires that all actors demonstrate an additional level of responsibility to avoid incidents or potential escalation at the Administrative Boundary Lines. From this perspective, we continue to monitor the situation without any interruptions. The visible presence of EUMM Monitors along the ABLs contributes to the relatively stable environment that we observe right now. However, we should not take it for granted, as there is always some potential for adverse development.

We also try to use all the tools at our disposal, including confidence-building instruments, like the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) in Ergneti and the EUMM-managed Hotline to defuse potential tensions to resolve specific issues that might appear. This provides a well-functioning channel of communication and format of direct dialogue in practical matters of relevance for the daily life of conflict-affected communities.

It has been slightly over two years since you assumed your duties as the Head of the Mission in March 2020, which coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the key tendencies and challenges in and around the two regions that you could observe over the past two years?

I never expected this mandate to be so dominated by the COVID-pandemic and now by the ongoing Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. I had slightly different plans, but obviously, we are a crisis management operation, so we need to adapt to the changing situation and react accordingly. Our Mission managed to adapt operational activities even during the highest peak of the COVID pandemic, and we maintained a continuous monitoring presence at the ABL. But, of course, during those two years, we experienced more difficult or more positive moments. This is the nature of this operation that we are prepared for every possible scenario.

We can say from the current perspective that, unfortunately, the COVID pandemic further accelerated and enhanced the sense of separation or isolation of regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. First of all, as a result of the restrictions imposed on freedom of movement across the ABLs, in particular the prolonged closure of crossing points in the South Ossetian theatre. Secondly, the continuous process of “borderization” creates physical and psychological barriers.

Those processes significantly affect the daily lives of the people living on both sides of the ABLs, particularly ethnic Georgian communities in Abkhazia living in Gali District, and in South Ossetia living in Akhalgori District. For example, it affects their access to education, adequate healthcare, pensions, interactions with friends and families, the possibility of conducting some economic activities, or even buying some basic products, like food or medicines. This was the dominating element of the situation observed during those two years of the COVID pandemic.

We noticed attempts to accelerate further the so-called ‘passportization’ process in South Ossetia, by forcing people who could not collect the pensions and benefits paid by the central Georgian government, to apply for de facto ‘passports.’

Speaking of the crossing points with Tskhinvali/South Ossetia, recently there was a rather positive exception of the reopening of the three crossing points, including the Odzisi, which serves Akhalgori residents for the Easter holidays. Do you see any promising signs that the freedom of movement across the ABLs, especially the S. Ossetian ABL, to be improved? Do you see any tangible results coming up anytime soon?

This is a positive development that we even acknowledged in our press statement. IPRM Co-Facilitators actively advocated for the reopening of the crossing points, particularly Odzisi. The temporary opening of the three crossing points along the S. Ossetian ABL during the Easter holidays was well received by the local residents. More than 1,100 crossings were observed during those five days for all three crossing points, with the most significant share in Odzisi. People used this short time to visit friends and families, do some important stuff, even see doctors, or buy medicines. Some family members were able to reunite for the first time in more than two and a half years. We had a conversation with a father who was able to visit his adult children living on the other side of the ABL for the first time since the summer of 2019.

If similar arrangements will follow this in the future? We can only hope so and we will keep advocating to resume the regular and permanent opening of the crossing points at the South Ossetian theatre. Similarly, at the Abkhaz ABL, we witness two crossing points functioning more or less regularly and serving local communities.

Another topic widely discussed before the Easter holidays was the access to graveyards and religious sites. We did not observe the significant presence of the security actors at those locations during Easter time and no incidents were registered. We noticed that some local residents used this time to visit their ancestors’ graveyards or locally important religious sites, located in the proximity of the ABL. It is another moderate source of optimism that we might be able to also continue with this approach in the future.

We do not hide that there we face various problems at the ABL. The task of supporting normalization, that we have in our mandate, is becoming more challenging because of the growing isolation of the breakaway regions and limited interactions between communities living on both sides of the ABL.

In particular, the ongoing process of ‘borderization’ results in almost impenetrable physical barriers preventing people from crossing the ABL. It also has a psychological impact on the local population. They are afraid to approach the line and even farm their land plots because of the fear of detention. Moreover, daily they observe the intensive presence of the Russian Federation border guards patrolling along the ABL.

We see frequent instances of detentions that unfortunately intensified during the last couple of months. We are talking about seven pending detention cases in the South Ossetian theatre. Together with my fellow OSCE Co-Facilitator, we continue to advocate for the speedy release of those detainees, considering a dramatic humanitarian situation for them and their families. Unfortunately, this is usually a complicated process.

You mentioned this very issue during the recent Ergneti IPRM, with the Co-Facilitators, including you, taking note of the high number of arrests and advocating for a humanitarian approach to the resolution of the problem. What is, in your opinion, behind the high level of arrests?

It’s challenging to identify one particular factor behind this increased number of detentions. On the one hand, we see more advanced technical infrastructure installed at the ABL as part of the borderization process, including movement detectors, cameras, and sensors. Additionally, there is also the impact of the prolonged closure of the crossing points, forcing many local residents to seek access to the other side of the ABL and take some desperate steps.

At the same time, we keep advocating for simplified procedures during the detentions, such as releasing the person within a couple of hours. Last year those procedures were more frequently followed by the security actors on the other side of the ABL.

The regularity of detentions and the necessity to address them show the importance of keeping the IPRM format operational. Despite the currently more complicated situation related to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, we manage to keep this format practical and relatively constructive. It is our responsibility as Co-Facilitators to make every possible attempt to resolve the existing problems of the local residents, in particular conflict-affected communities.

Since the last Geneva International Discussions meeting planned for the end of March has been postponed, the regularity of IPRM meetings is even more critical. We need instruments to address the most pressing issues, including detentions. A good example is the Hotline that EUMM operates, which ensures daily communication across the ABLs. In April 2022 we had more than 300 activations, which makes, on average, ten per day. There are different topics for which the Hotline is activated, like farming, detentions, medical crossing, missing animals, and borderization or activities of security actors. EUMM attaches particular importance to ensuring the effective operation of the Hotline.

Do you have any breakdown of data about how many calls came for Abkhazia and S. Ossetia?

Recently almost 90% of activations are related to the South Ossetian theatre. We used to have more in the Abkhaz theater during the pandemic because of many medical crossings, including COVID-positive patients who were brought from Abkhazia to Rukhi Hospital. Last year we had 2,300 activations, the breakdown was 80% South Ossetian cases to 20% Abkhaz cases.

As you have mentioned, as the GID has been postponed for quite some time, IPRM Ergneti remains in place. But the IPRM in Gali has been stalled since 2018 over the Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili list. Do you see any prospect or movement towards the restoration of this channel of communication?

Indeed, it has been almost four years since the last meeting of Gali IPRM. I know that the European Union GID co-chair, but also the other co-chairs from the OSCE and the UN, continuously call for the unconditional resumption of the Gali IPRM meetings. The situation requires this kind of format to be in place and to have regular meetings on the ground. EUMM remains ready to contribute to those meetings. Our UN colleagues are very active to bring this format back to the original track. What we understand from the situation along the Abkhaz ABL and in the Gali District, the resumption of Gali IPRM is especially important for the local residents.

A recent technical meeting in IPRM Ergneti became a pretext for our meeting. You have noted the progress over talks about the irrigation. What is the state of the progress on this issue? Could provide more background information?

It is an interesting example of an issue that may not be so widely covered in the media or in public statements. But it is a fundamental issue for the residents in the Shida Kartli region. They are dependent on the regular supply of irrigation water for their farming, as the income is very much dependent on the resolution of irrigation issues.

The background on this: the irrigation system — the Tiriponi canal system — supplying water to this region is crossing the ABL in many locations. Villages on both sides of the ABL use the water from this system. In the summer, water supplied from the Didi Lakhvi River might be insufficient, and a further addition may be needed from the Zonkari dam, located northeast of Tskhinvali. Therefore, cooperation across the ABL is required to ensure an additional amount of water in the canal system.

During those technical meetings, like the one on the 27th of April, we discuss the practical aspects of cooperation regarding the supply and distribution of the irrigation water.  We managed to organize this technical meeting for the second year in a row, attended by irrigation experts from both sides of the ABL, facilitated again by the OSCE and EUMM. Both sides use Hotline to exchange information about the water level or the distribution schedule. It’s a technical issue but of significant importance for the local population. We usually manage to avoid controversies or misunderstandings between participants in this case.

The EUMM is not able to fully exercise its mandate as its monitors are denied regular access to the territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. Are there any instances when your monitors, at least in isolated cases, are still allowed to these regions for fact-checking missions? Are you, personally, welcomed in these two regions by the de facto authorities?

Right, we are not allowed to conduct our monitoring activities on the other side of the ABLs, despite the precise formulation of our original mandate from 2008 that refers to Georgia’s entire internationally recognized territory. So we are prevented from fully implementing our mandate. We keep advocating both on the political and working levels to lift those restrictions. But unfortunately, due to existing political circumstances, it is difficult to expect quick progress on this issue.

The issue also remains on the agenda of the representatives of the European Union Institutions and the Member States. By having unrestricted access, we could better assess the security situation on both sides of the ABLs, for example, to support the political dialogue within Geneva International Discussions.

We still try to observe as much as possible across the line, through open-source reporting and talking with interlocutors. For example, our monitors are in constant interaction with residents to collect information on their living conditions. All in all, we can maintain a level of situational awareness that allows us to provide well-informed assessments to the European Union Institutions and Member States.

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