The civilian mission in Georgia of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is to be dissolved after 16 years, after Russia blocked the extension of the mission's mandate at a meeting in Vienna.
The OSCE's chairman in office, Alexander Stubb, hinted at trouble last week when he called on the body's 56 member states to overcome differences and extend the mandate of the Georgia mission before it expired on December 31.
The appeal failed, however, when Russia single-handedly blocked the initiative during a vote at OSCE headquarters in Vienna. All OSCE votes must be unanimous to pass.
OSCE spokesperson Martin Nesirky tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service the decision means work will begin on January 1 to dismantle its Tbilisi mission, which has 200 staff members and has been on the ground for well over a decade.
"The mission has been there since 1992," Nesirky said. "And even though it's been there for that many years, there is still a lot of work to be done. A lot of progress has been made, but there's a lot of work to be done still in many areas. Of course, a key part of the mandate was conflict resolution -- trying to ensure that stability prevails in that part of the world."
A sticking point for Moscow was the continued inclusion of Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the OSCE mandate.
Moscow said its five-day war with Georgia in August was aimed at protecting South Ossetia from Georgian aggression. Both territories have since declared independence from Georgia, but have yet to be recognized by any states other than Russia and Nicaragua.
Russia's OSCE ambassador, Anvar Azimov, told reporters that Moscow was hoping the OSCE would agree in future to separate missions in Georgia's breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
What happened today was a surprise for me because I expect more sophisticated and cooperative behavior from a major power. It's an indication that Russia is gaining ground in its goal of destroying the [OSCE] from within.
But Julie Finley, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, characterized Moscow's move as the latest attempt to undermine the European body.
"What happened today was a surprise for me because I expect more sophisticated and cooperative behavior from a major power," Finley said. "It's an indication that Russia is gaining ground in its goal of destroying the [OSCE] from within."
The past few years have seen Russia systematically raising its profile at the Vienna-based grouping, which relies on unanimity among its members to advance security and human-rights programs.
Moscow has criticized the OSCE and other European bodies like the Council of Europe for imposing inappropriate standards for election-monitoring and other activities in Russia and the former Soviet republics that comprise its "near abroad."
The OSCE declined to send monitors to Russia for either the December 2007 parliamentary elections or the March 2008 presidential vote after Moscow tried to impose harsh restrictions on the composition and mandate of the monitoring mission.
Finley said today's vote was further proof that Russia is "clearly not concerned about isolating itself." She called Russia's refusal to extend the OSCE mission "appalling."
"People have to think about the region, and the security of the region. And they have to appreciate the nonconstructive attitude of one member of this 56-member organization," she said. "Fifty-five countries were ready to work on this compromise. Fifty-five countries -- and if you look at the list, it's a pretty varied list of countries. But all 55 were willing to work. But not the Russian Federation."
The decision also means that the 28 unarmed military observers the OSCE has deployed along the Georgian-Ossetian border since the war will be withdrawn.
Eight will have to leave beginning on January 1; the remaining 20 are permitted to stay until February.
The withdrawal will have a deleterious impact on monitoring in and around the conflict zones. Russia has refused to allow European Union monitors to enter either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, sparking fears that postwar ethnic violence may continue unchecked.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians are believed to have been displaced from villages located inside Ossetia during and after the fighting. As Russian forces take steps to establish a permanent presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze tells Reuters that the removal of international observers like the OSCE monitors exposes the region to greater risk of human rights abuse.
"Russia did its best to kill one more international mandate in Georgia," Vashadze said. "It was done deliberately in order not to have any witnesses for its illegal actions on occupied territories and its massive violations of human rights there, which can be counted now in the thousands."
The closure of the Tbilisi mission is also a blow. The OSCE mission had supported a number of civil-society programs in Georgia, including initiatives related to media freedom, the economy, and election reform. It had also acted as a liaison between Ossetian, Russian, and Georgian sides in South Ossetia.
Sergi Kapanadze, the head of the Georgian Foreign Ministry department tasked with monitoring all of Georgia's work with international organizations, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that Moscow's move to close the mission is part of a broader strategy to break Tbilisi's strong ties with the outside world.
"This is part of a Russian policy that is aimed at gradually reducing the number and role of international organizations working in Georgia, because the bigger the role of international organizations in the conflict resolution process, the more difficult it is to escalate the situation," Kapanadze said. "It's in Russia's interest that the international organizations pull out of Georgia, step by step."
Some diplomats expressed hope that an agreement on a new mandate could be reached in 2009.
Its success, however, may depend on whether Moscow will compromise on its demand that South Ossetia and Abkhazia be treated as separate entities -- and whether Greece, which assumes the OSCE chair in January, has better luck than Finland in dealing with Russia.