OSCE to extend Georgia mission?

Europe’s top security watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), still hopes for a last-minute deal to extend its peace monitoring in Georgia and is open to fresh talks with Russia, its chair said ahead of a ministerial meeting this weekend. Russia fought a five-day war with Georgia last August over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia. It has rejected an extension of the OSCE’s mission in the former Soviet republic, a major conduit for Caspian gas and oil to Western Europe. As the OSCE’s mandate in Georgia expires on June 30, with no deal to extend it, Western officials and rights groups fear the absence of monitors could aggravate tensions and lead to new fighting. «Our mission in Georgia did very important work and it should stay there,» Greek Foreign Minister and OSCE Chair Dora Bakoyannis told Reuters in an interview yesterday before a meeting of OSCE foreign ministers, including Russia’s, on the Greek island of Corfu this weekend. «I have hope that with more communication and more dialogue, it is possible to find common ground on [this] very difficult issue, where views are diametrically opposed,» she said. OSCE staff are already moving out of their hillside headquarters in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, and military monitors are expected to conduct their final patrol near the de facto border with South Ossetia this week. Moscow has vetoed extending the mandate of the 56-member organization’s military observers in Georgia because it wants a separate mission to South Ossetia. Western states say this would amount to acknowledgement that South Ossetia is a sovereign state, something that Russia supports but the international community refuses to recognize. «A great effort is needed to find common ground,» Bakoyannis said. «Our proposals are on the table and we are ready to restart the dialogue when we have a sense that we can come to a conclusion.» Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will take part in the OSCE meeting as well as the first NATO-Russia ministerial meeting since the war in Georgia on Saturday, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will not attend due to an arm injury. Clinton will be replaced by Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg. The meeting aims to help mend relations that were strained under the former Bush administration, when tensions over the Georgia war, US missile shield plans and other issues sent ties between Moscow and the West to a post-Cold War low. «It was not easy after the Caucasus crisis,» said Bakoyannis, adding she believed the meeting could «create a new dynamic.» She said she expected Lavrov to bring up Russia’s plan for a «new security architecture» in Europe. Ministers are also expected to discuss the situation in Iran. Although the United States and NATO reacted coolly to Russia’s proposal last year, many NATO allies appear willing to discuss it. But they want Moscow to give up what they regard as an old «sphere of influence» approach to security. NATO hopes the re-establishment of high-level political dialogue with Russia will boost military cooperation, in particular over Afghanistan.