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The facts speak for themselves – interview with OSCE Ambassador Terhi Hakala

By Temuri Kiguradze
Tuesday, June 23
The OSCE mission in Georgia was established back in 1992. Since then OSCE observers have been trying to help resolve the conflict in South Ossetia. The work of the mission continued even after the August war, until Russia blocked the extension of the mission at the end of 2008.

The Kremlin appealed to OSCE member states to take into account the “new realities” in the region, created after Moscow recognised the ‘independence’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and demanded that a new OSCE mission be established with a head office in Tskhinvali. Though refusing to legitimise Russia’s recognition of these Georgian territories, OSCE member countries failed to reach a consensus on ways to extend the mission.

The OSCE mission to Georgia will close on June 30, two weeks before the set deadline. The head of the mission, Finnish diplomat Terhi Hakala, kindly agreed to speak to The Messenger about the performance of the OSCE in Georgia over the past seventeen years.

Ambassador Hakala notes that the OSCE has contributed a lot to the reform process in Georgia. “We have also contributed to capacity building in all three dimensions of the OSCE’s work in Georgia; I’m talking about the military and political, human dimension, economic and environmental issues. Another achievement of the OSCE, if you can say this now after the war, was confidence building in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone. I’m talking about building confidence between the people, not the politicians. People got used to the OSCE presence in the region. The programme of economic rehabilitation [of the conflict region] which we launched several years ago was also quite successful. It was successful throughout its life in many ways, but before the [August] war of course.”

Considering the end of the mission’s mandate, Hakala says her biggest disappointment was that the war happened. “Of course it was not the mission’s fault, but it was a big disappointment to see the situation getting worse. The security situation was getting worse last spring and summer and we didn’t manage to bring the sides back to the negotiating table.”

The Ambassador says about the period preceding the military actions in August 2008 and the reasons for the conflict: “After the decision on Kosovo and the NATO meeting in April we witnessed the security situation deteriorating on the ground. Even we in the mission were targeted by militia in June [2008]. It was clear that the Ossetian side was not willing to return to dialogue. We tried to propose alternative means of dialogue but it was clear that the Ossetian side would agree only to the JCS [Joint Control Commission] format.” The Ambassador also stated that by “Ossetian side” she means “Ossetian-Russian” side, due to the heavy backing of Moscow for the de facto South Ossetian authorities.

Before and after the August conflict the Russian and South Ossetian de facto authorities often accused the OSCE mission of being incapable of preventing the military actions in the region, but Terhi Hakala considers that the OSCE did its best. “We had eight military monitors in Tskhinvali,” Hakala says. “The joint peacekeeping forces consisted of three battalions, and two of them carried Russian passports. The figures speak for themselves; there is no chance of keeping a situation stable if there is no will to keep it stable. There were also attempts to strengthen the presence [of the mission] in the region, but we didn’t manage to do it, because the Ossetian side was strongly against an increase of our presence on the ground. They told us that eight monitors was enough, and now they are saying that we couldn’t prevent the war. We had to monitor the situation, and this we did, we had a number of reports on the increase in incidents, the movement [of troops], and we did our duty according to our mandate.”

“We told the OSCE countries that the situation was getting worse and worse and we reported the increasing number of incidents in the conflict zone,” she says. “For us it was clear [that the conflict was coming] in June when our mission was directly targeted. This information is recorded and was sent back to the OSCE, so now it’s up to the Tagliavini [EU August war inquiry] commission to study all these things.” Hakala also points out that during its time in South Ossetia OSCE monitors were not allowed to enter all areas of the breakaway region. “We didn’t have access to Roki, to the Road of Life, to Didi Kupta [village], to Java; we didn’t have access to the places we should have done [according to the mandate].”

Ambassador Hakala states that relations with de facto South Ossetian authorities were “good,” but the South Ossetian media created troubles for the mission by accusing it of being “pro-Georgian” and “partial.” “And we were not,” states Hakala, adding that the mission provided objective information, based on facts, to the organization. “It was very clear that they wanted to damage our reputation. These kind of statements were dangerous for my mission members working on the ground.”

“We evacuated the mission in the afternoon of August 8. There was no security for the mission, the building was hit several times and our Russian guards [from the Russian peacekeeping battalion] were hiding with the monitors in the basement,” Hakala says of the decision to leave the headquarters building when the war broke out.

“I think the saddest thing in this situation is that international eyes and ears have been lost. If we talk about the territories close to the conflict regions, we can say that OSCE cars were the sign of security. The support programme for the population of the regions will disappear now. We represented the international community in the conflict region, we tried to develop the community, develop the NGOs, assist with economic rehabilitation, so I think it’s a big loss for the local residents as well. Even though we received criticism from the [de facto] authorities we always felt the support of the local population,” the Ambassador says. “The Geneva talks are now the only place where this conflict is being discussed. I hope these will be more effective in future. Now the UNOMIG and OSCE missions are gone, we have no field presence and no one can report to Geneva about how this dialogue is being implemented on the ground,” she adds.

Commenting on Georgian Government accusations that the Russian authorities are blocking international observer missions in order to remove witnesses to their actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ambassador Hakala noted, “The facts speak for themselves”. “I understand very well the position of Georgian Government,” she added. The restoration of international observer missions “depends on Moscow,” considers Terhi Hakala.

“The resolution of this conflict will be a very long process. Political dialogue now seems to be very difficult, but I hope that people-to-people contacts can be reestablished and in that way confidence can be built. This will make the tensions somehow ease. It’s difficult to predict now, but I think that the keys [to conflict resolution] are in Moscow,” the Ambassador states, adding that the international community can’t put any direct pressure on Russia. “Both the UN and OSCE are consensus-based organizations, for them it’s simply impossible to impose any kind of sanctions on Russia.”

“All sides of the conflict have made mistakes during these years; I can’t say that anyone emerges spotless here. Even my mission can point to some things it could have done in a different way. But now it’s too late to speculate on these issues,” the Ambassador says.

After almost two years at the OSCE mission in Georgia, Terhi Hakala is leaving the OSCE and becoming Finland’s Ambassador to India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. She says she will not return to the OSCE. “Nothing in OSCE can be as interesting as these 20 months in Georgia,” Terhi Hakala told us on June 18.