Missions OperationsReportRussia Caucasus Ukraine

Story of Georgia 7: On the Road with an EUMM Patrol

(B2) The first task of the observers is to verify that the conditions prescribed in the “Medvedev-Sarkozy” ceasefire plan, concluded on August 12, are respected. Since the withdrawal of Russian forces from the security zone, they have above all ensured respect for the free movement of populations, the absence of prohibited weapons in the ranks of Georgian police officers, the presence of soldiers in their barracks, and provide information on the various incidents reported to them.

NB: All the testimonies collected in this report were done anonymously except for a long interview with General Janvier (quoted in this case). This was one of the conditions put by my interlocutors. Theoretically, observers can only speak about “their personal situation, age, origin, etc. and even if they wish,” a mission official told me. “under no circumstances can they speak about those they see or what they can observe. Even Off. However, you are free to follow them in your vehicle and see what they see” he added. Order/advice (almost) scrupulously respected…  NB: for the simplicity of the testimonies, I speak of an officer when it comes to a person in charge (without this being able to denote membership in a military or civilian body).

Go into the field to gather information

In a country where rumor is king, the only way to get information is to go out into the field. Every morning, near Abkhazia or Ossetia, in each of the Field offices (Zugdibi near Abkhazia, Khaskhuri near Gori), several patrols leave to explore a sector, a road, a checkpoint. On site, the observers make contact with the authorities, those responsible for the check points, and civilians, in order to obtain as much information as possible, to be able to cross-check and analyze it. A specific cell at Headquarters is responsible for this work. The quality and objectivity of information are a valuable element in enabling a clear political assessment of the situation.

Hotel Victoria, Gori – French gendarmes in briefing before
departure – © NGV

Departure on patrol towards the Tskhinvali checkpoint.The principle is to mix teams, nationalities, and profiles: a civilian expert, police officers, gendarmes. Each patrol has two vehicles. Both to ensure safety (if a car is hit or simply breaks down). But also to ensure the objective of the mission. “A patrol is always mixed, in terms of nationality at least and experiences as well. And we are going to mix them more and more. Its an asset" says General Janvier, Deputy Head of Mission. The vehicles are armored, to deal with any problem. The situation remains tense, especially near the border. Several Georgian police officers have already been victims of shootings or attacks by improvised explosive device.

That day, several patrols leave from the Victoria Hotel, headquarters of the Gori Field Office. There is no leader as such. Nor rank. “We are not on a military mission” an officer tells me. But, how a leader is needed. The established principle “is that the leader of the first vehicle takes charge of the patrol”. This morning, we are heading into the mountains, far away. It is the Poles who are in front with their AMZ with a very military look. The French follow with their blue Panhard. Direction: Perevi, among the Russians. They took something to sleep on site (0 star hotel, i.e. without heating or electricity). The road, chaotic, is not really made for driving fast. And what as the crow flies represents 60 km requires a fairly large detour, which takes at least 4 hours for all-terrain vehicles. This road is right for our vehicle (we are in a separate car, obligation of the EUMM which does not want journalists in these vehicles, logical, but impractical). And fear appears on the face of our translator who panics, makes numerous phone calls to her boss, her cousin, and ends up telling me “we're not going any further, it's too dangerous”. Anecdotal? No... revealing a feeling of excitement and fear among certain Georgians, at least those in Tbilisi, while there is no danger, especially... behind the two armored vehicles of the EUMM. We turn back along the way, leaving the bear in a cage to watch over the side of the road, at the edge of the restaurant...

Next patrol. Never mind, back to Gori, we take the next patrol. There are regularly, generally, two or three in the morning, leaving at 8 a.m. And two, in the afternoon. departure: 16 p.m. The number of vehicles and patrols varies depending on current events and orders. A certain autonomy is left to each person. The OHQ gives general guidelines. But the Field Office appreciates the situation locally. But the patrol leader also has a lot of autonomy to decide where he wants to go. There it is a Bulgarian-Polish-French patrol, led by a civilian expert (formerly from the Ministry of Defense all the same): a Mercedes and an Amz. Direction unknown. We follow. In fact we go back towards the Tskhinvali checkpoint. First objective: avoid potholes and hazardous traffic. This is the plain. We are in a country of apple trees.

In the first village, in Karaleti, a herd of cows, the patrol passes between two herds. Some houses destroyed. The residents look closely at these military vehicles which they are not used to. To distinguish who they belong to. Indeed the question of the visibility of these (mismatched) vehicles arises (read on the “issues and challenges). Some children greet the patrol. We drive slowly around the village. And we continue on the road. Tirdznisi: some houses are already under reconstruction, new windows installed, framework. It will quickly be rebuilt. We are in the old “buffer zone” and if nothing really traumatic is visible, if we pay attention, we can see houses without roofs, burned, behind the trees, at least 3-4 per village or hamlet. There are a lot of farmers here. We live from small agriculture. Eventually we will work on the city. Brsteletsi, Ergneti: more houses destroyed, around one in three, or burned.

We arrive at the checkpoint. Safety instructions are strict. Especially when the vision is not clear (as is often the case in the region, as nightfall approaches). Park quite far from the post, approach preferably on foot, with very clear signage, blue chasuble marked with the EU and blue beret, walk slowly, to avoid any misunderstanding.

The “four musketeers” climb towards the Check Point © NGV

Handshake. Question from one of the Observers. How's it going ? "Everything is going well. Yesterday they threw stones at us”. The two posts are separated by a few tens of meters. Both South Ossetian and Russian flags fly together on the post. “This morning, too, we heard explosions. In the distance, like practice shots”. There is a bit of provocation all the time. The Georgian police officers in combat uniforms and machine guns – the normal outfit – are in prefabs. The conversation then turns to time, everyday life: “Hey, we saw your colleagues yesterday in a white jeep.” Astonishment of our observers: “Wasn't it the OSCE?" Answer : "Yes, that’s the OSCE,” agrees the policeman, smiling (did he do it a little on purpose to tease our observers…). (*).

First contact between observers and head of the checkpoint © NGV

The Observers watch. They are in a land of knowledge. And visit the post regularly. They won't go any further today. They have to go elsewhere. “The OHQ comes from
report shots on A
. Given the nightfall, it is not very recommended”, they explain. Obviously they don't want a guide. This time…

Georgian “policemen”. The Georgian “police officers” are there on duty. Special units, I am told. But at first glance, it's hard to tell that they are police officers. Dressed all in khaki, with helmet, American M4 rifle most often (the AK 47 when it comes to more ordinary police officers). EUMM Observers may request identity cards from police officers. To verify that they are not military. They can also enter police stations to check for heavy weapons. But ultimately, as one observer later admitted: We have to trust them. They are presented as police officers, and have police cards”. The Georgian soldiers do not, in fact, have the right to approach the border. And heavy weapons are prohibited in the buffer zone. Observers regularly check this point. If necessary at night…

Georgian police at the checkpoint © NGV

The benefit of night patrols. This may seem anachronistic. But there are night patrols. For what ? “First of all, it’s our mandate, to be there 24 hours a day,” General Janvier explains to me. Then “Patrolling at night is interesting. We can see things that we don't see in the daytime, and make interesting observations.” Like this movement observed by EUMM observers, in the countryside, one night at 24:23 p.m., of 30 Georgian 7 mm howitzers, outside the adjacent zone, but not far from the limits of Ossetia...

Patrols to South Ossetia. The forces normally patrol up to the Georgian checkpoint, or up to the administrative boundary, sometimes beyond to make contact with the Russian, Ossetian or Abkhazian checkpoint. Towards Abkhazia, this contact has remained limited for the moment. “ The first time we arrived in Abkhazia, it went well. The Russians were a little surprised to see us, but not unhappy, we were able to push 200 meters further to the Abkhazian checkpoint. We haven't done it again since. » Towards Ossetia, contacts are more common. Regularly, teams of observers pass to the other side, according to well-established rules. The Russian command or the de facto authority of the Ossetian Interior Ministry is informed beforehand, in order to avoid any misunderstanding. But the observers did not “go further” onto the region’s roads. Which would be technically possible. Because sometimes the Russian or Ossetian checkpoint is several kilometers lower, for practical and strategic reasons as well. The principle was therefore set – internally, within the EUMM –: "not to go more than a kilometer into the territory". Caution is the rule... The situation is very volatile. In fact, if Russian checkpoints are visited regularly, those run only by Ossetians are less so. “As much as the contacts with the Russians are good, the same with the South Ossetians, it is more difficult” assures an expert on the ground. " Russian troops are regular troops, they are disciplined and behave well (generallyment). The Russians themselves advised us to avoid the South Ossetians.”

Ossetian-Russian checkpoint near Tskhinvali (seen from the Georgian side)

Procedures. There is no "rules of engagement (in the usual sense of the term). “We are not in a military mission and that would involve a confrontation. Our approach is purely civil.” explains General Janvier. But there are nevertheless procedures for security, reporting, incident reporting, etc. If rules were built at the start, we also build a little while walking. Everyday, “we innovate and improve procedures” complete an officer.

Everyday, a report is thus sent to Brussels, supplemented by a weekly summary and a monthly summary. In the event of a serious incident, a special report is immediately drawn up. Similarly, in the event of an accident involving an observer, a telephone call is immediately made to the Civil Conduct and Planning Capability (CCPC) duty station in Brussels and to the cabinet of the High Representative, Javier Solana, to hold him aware. The observers also report the problem to the authority behind the incident (Russians, Ossetians or Abkhazians, Georgians) so that they can take action. Every Thursday, a general meeting takes place at Headquarter with all the ambassadors in post (EU, United States, etc.) and the international organizations present (UN, OSCE, etc.) to take stock.

The mission is established over time.
One year first (maybe extended). In any case, certain French observers who had left for a limited period (4 months for the French) were offered to stay longer, for this first year. And many of them volunteered to extend it like this.


(*) Update: in fact OSCE - I learned this later - it is rather Pierre Morel, the special envoy of the European Union for the crisis in Georgia who was visiting with the de facto authorities of South Ossetia, and uses white OSCE vehicles for this purpose

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).