MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can only patrol in Georgia next year if their mandate is changed to take account of Moscow's concerns, Russia's foreign minister has said.
The OSCE said it would start shutting down its mission in Georgia on January 1 after Russia refused to extend the existing mandate because of a dispute over the status of South Ossetia, a Moscow-backed separatist region of Georgia.
"The mandate cannot function, either in the practical or the legal sense," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
He told a news conference that Russia had submitted a draft for a new mandate to the OSCE, Europe's main democracy and human rights watchdog, and it was now up to the organization's other members to approve it.
"It is not down to us," he said.
Western states say OSCE monitors patrolling Georgia's conflict zone with South Ossetia can provide early warning of a new flare-up in hostilities, and investigate allegations of rights abuses against ethnic Georgians.
Their mandate expires on December 31. Russia's proposals for a new mandate have stalled because Moscow says it must acknowledge that South Ossetia is an independent state -- a status that only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized.
Compelled To Act
Russia launched a counterattack on land, sea, and air after Tbilisi's forces tried in August to retake South Ossetia, a strip of land in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains that threw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s.
Moscow said it was compelled to act to protect civilians in South Ossetia from Georgian aggression. Western states said the Russian response, which included sending troops to within a few kilometers of Tbilisi, was disproportionate.
A small force of unarmed military observers from the OSCE and a larger European Union observer contingent were deployed to Georgia to monitor observance of a cease-fire agreement.
Neither group has been allowed into South Ossetia -- a lack of access which Western diplomats say leaves the outside world in the dark about what is happening inside the region.
Georgia forces are in an armed standoff on the de facto border with South Ossetia, and analysts say a new flare-up of fighting is a real possibility.
Human rights groups say South Ossetian militias, with the complicity of Russian forces, have been systematically destroying ethnic Georgian villages and harassing the few ethnic Georgians who remain. Moscow and the separatist authorities deny playing any part in abuses.
Lavrov was speaking after talks with Sergei Shamba, separatist foreign minister of a second Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognized as an independent state.
Lavrov said Russia had agreed to represent Abkhazia's interests in foreign countries and in international organizations.