TBILISI -- One month after the European Union sent monitors to postconflict Georgia, mission head Ambassador Hansjoerg Haber sat down with RFE/RL correspondent Nino Gelashvili in Tbilisi to discuss the current situation on the ground now.
RFE/RL: You've mentioned several times that your mission covers the entire territory of Georgia, including the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The position of Russia, as well as the South Ossetian and Abkhaz de facto authorities, is that if the EU does not officially recognize these two de facto republics, the mission monitors have nothing to do there. Considering this, what gives you reason to say that that some day your monitors may be working in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Hansjoerg Haber: First of all, our claim that the mandate of the mission covers the whole of Georgia is an important legal standpoint which preserves the Georgian legal position. I think that's already something that is important in itself.
Other than that, we think that we should cooperate on the ground because we hear complaints from both sides about lack of security around the administrative border. As far as we are concerned, we have not been able to verify anything so far. However, we will investigate any claims that are made by either of the sides. We go to the spot and report about whatever we find, impartially and according to the highest standards. So, I think both sides, including the de facto authorities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have an interest to invite us and let us inspect the places.
RFE/RL: On the eve of your recent visit to Tskhinvali, there were reports that some of your monitors had been detained on South Ossetian territory. Can you comment on this incident? Also, regarding your visit to the South Ossetian capital, was any progress made toward allowing your monitors to enter the region?
Haber: I wasn't myself in Tskhinvali but the field-office commander of our Gori field office was. It was a first contact and further contacts were not excluded. And we will try to pursue these contacts, eventually also having the Georgians participate.
RFE/RL: And regarding the reports of your monitors being detained?
Haber: No monitors were detained. We don't know where this rumor surfaces from.
RFE/RL: It was on the official website of the so-called South Ossetian republic. You mentioned earlier that Russia has not implemented the September agreement fully. Can you say that Georgia has fully implemented it in terms of returning its forces to the prewar positions?
Haber: Well, returning the Georgian forces to the places of usual cantonment, as it says in the fourth point, is from our point of view a measure to end hostilities. Georgia is a sovereign state and its armed forces cannot for all times be confined to their barracks. They must conduct exercises, etc.
But, of course, there should be no forces deployed in the immediate vicinity of the administrative boundary because this may give rise to conflicts. And this is what we are talking to the Georgian side about.
RFE/RL: The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, recently spoke about setting up an international investigative group. Can you tell us more about this? What would be the purpose of this investigation?
Haber: The investigation aims to determine what caused the war to erupt on August 7 and also examine the events that led to it. It's not part of our mandate, and I think we can pursue our mandate without this issue, because our main task here is to prevent further conflict.
Problems Of Returnees
RFE/RL: You've repeatedly stated that one of the most serious problems at the moment is unexploded ordnance on territories neighboring the war zone. How far along is the demining process, and who is taking part in it?
Haber: There are unarmed Georgian forces from both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. The international nongovernmental organization HALO Trust is also helping to clear unexploded ordnance, rather than mines. There are hardly any mines in these adjacent areas.
Although the problem is decreasing thanks to the clearing work HALO Trust has conducted, we cooperate with the group to warn the returning civilian population of the dangers of collecting unexploded ordnance or of stepping on it, especially when civilians head to the fields to collect whatever is left from the harvest. But since the harvest is mostly over, I think the problem has become less acute. Next week we will be in contact with HALO Trust to assess the remaining threat and prepare the next steps in our mine-awareness campaign.
RFE/RL: A significant part of the harvest is being lost because people are afraid to enter the fields. That makes them vulnerable ahead of the winter, because they will have nothing to eat. How would you assess the situation for those who have returned? Do you have any advice for the Georgian government on how to help them?
Haber: First of all, I think it's very good that the civilian population has been able to return to the adjacent areas. We are talking about some 35,000 internally displaced persons who had already partially returned before October 8-10 and who can now fully return and enjoy the law and order that have been established in most of the adjacent area.
But the problem of the harvest is an important one, both in terms of food ahead of the winter and of income for this mainly rural population over the next few years. It is not exactly our mandate to provide such help for the civilian population, this was the role of the recent donors conference. But we are, of course, studying the situation. So far we don't have a clear picture of the population's food reserves and of how they assess their own chances for the approaching winter. But clearly, the income gap will be a problem for years to come.
RFE/RL: Let's go back to your mandate and talk about the security situation. You used to say that it could have been worse, and you were quoted as saying that it's "surprisingly calm" in the adjacent areas. Is this still the case?
Haber: There have been so far no victims, with the exception of the village of Eristskali near the Abkhaz administrative boundary line. There were two victims. We have certain indications that it was a settlement of accounts, but we are not sure about it.
But generally there have been no victims. There are abductions that are being claimed. We hear about shootings. We try to investigate these incidents but we have to be given exact names and data and places. And we try to be in touch with the local population to assess their subjective feeling of security.
RFE/RL: You mentioned the territory near Abkhazia. There was an accident when the governor of the Tsalenjikha region was killed. According to the information we received, your monitors were at the scene of the accident.
Haber: Yes, people were near the place. There was an explosion. They could only ascertain that it was not from a mortar grenade. This was for sure, it was certainly an explosive charge. This is more or less all. So, there was no mortar grenade fired across the administrative boundary line to hit exactly that place.
RFE/RL: Some Georgian NGOs -- and not only them, but also Human Rights Watch (HRW) -- are calling for changing the mandate of EU monitors. Actually, they are talking about another mission that would have some kind of policing and law enforcement responsibilities. Do you think the mandate of the current mission is broad enough?
Haber: Yes, I think it is. I don't think we should be armed. There is already the Georgian police and special police forces on the ground who are armed. We don't want to be two separate armed forces on the ground. We are monitoring them. I am aware that the HRW thought about such a demand but I'm not aware that they actually published it in their reports so far.
RFE/RL: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that his office informs you on nearly a daily basis about violations of the so-called Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement by the Georgian side. Can you confirm that you hear from them with such regularity, and explain to us the contact you have with the Russian side?
Haber: We don't get information from them on a daily basis. We got it once and we verified it and we found that most of it was not true. In other cases we could not fully ascertain the truth of the Russian allegations. But we welcome any information that is forthcoming from them and we will examine whatever they give to us.
Our contacts with the Russian side are at a very low level so far because there is no Russian Embassy [in Georgia]. There is only an interest section in the Swiss Embassy. And we have the Russian military in the two entities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But they are in the process of changing their peace[keeping] troops for the regular troops which they want to station there under their friendship agreements. And in this period of transition we have not been able to establish a firm contact, although we've been trying. Another contact is, of course, through Brussels and through the Russian permanent representative at the European Union.
RFE/RL: Does it work?
RFE/RL: What kind of cooperation do you need from Russia to make the mission more effective?
Haber: We want to initiate cooperation of the law enforcement agencies on the ground -- both from the Georgian side and from the South Ossetian or Abkhaz side. We have, as far as the administrative boundary line to South Ossetia is concerned, already the agreement in principle of the Georgians and of the Ossetians but this remains to be implemented. The meeting that we talked about before at the beginning of this week was the first step.
RFE/RL: Are you going to arrange the same kind of meeting in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, as well?
Haber: Yes, we hope to.