A first step to stopping a war, but much still to do

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2008, 12:00am

European Union intervention has, thankfully, pulled Georgia and Russia apart after days of dangerous conflict over the former's breakaway region of South Ossetia, although the peace is a fragile one. The risk of escalation into a fully fledged war that would also worsen relations between Moscow and the west - already strained - has, for the moment, been allayed. Humanitarian agencies can now get proper help to the 100,000 people forced from their homes by fighting. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has got agreement from his Georgian and Russian counterparts on an outline plan to resolve their differences, but that is the easy part; bringing a lasting end to the crisis will require dedication and skilful peacemaking. There is no quick-fix solution, nor will a UN Security Council response make a difference. Any one of several complications can trip up negotiators. The five-point framework that has been agreed to by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili is a valuable starting point, though. From it can come a truce, a pulling back of troops and, with diplomatic exertions, a lasting solution.

The conflict over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has dragged on for 16 years without any side willing to give ground. Both declared de facto independence after Georgia broke away from the former Soviet Union in 1991. That the regions are geographically part of Georgia, yet ethnically and linguistically distinct, has fuelled the aspirations of separatist groups. Many of their residents hold Russian passports and the region's economies are dependent on Moscow. Georgia's assertion of its sovereignty last Thursday, when it ordered soldiers into South Ossetia, was always likely to spur Russia to respond militarily in the name of protecting its citizens.

Georgia did not get the western support it had counted on. Russia quickly gained the upper hand. Among issues that will hamper peace efforts are Georgia's continued fighting with separatist rebels and its filing of complaints against Russia with international bodies. Neither side is blameless. Dozens, perhaps thousands, of lives have been needlessly lost. Georgia has been playing a dangerous geopolitical game, while Moscow has been supporting separatists and threatening its neighbour. A long-term solution is not obvious.

Understanding and respect will be crucial to reaching a deal. For now, both sides must work with the EU to restore calm and minimise the risk of a similar crisis erupting again.