KARALETI, Georgia – European Union monitors in white shirts and bright blue berets began patrolling a buffer zone Wednesday outside the breakaway region of South Ossetia that has been controlled by Russian troops and separatists since an August war in Georgia.
The deployment paves the way for a promised Russian pullback of its remaining troops from areas they occupied outside South Ossetia and another separatist region in Georgia.
Georgians in villages beyond Russian checkpoints welcomed the Western observers, who are to monitor the cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Some frightened residents of villages damaged by arson and looting they blame on South Ossetians said the EU came too late.
Russian troops had said Tuesday that none of the EU observers would immediately be permitted in the buffer zone outside South Ossetia, raising concerns that Moscow was backtracking on its commitments.
But EU monitors – whose job is to observe the cease-fire and the Russian pullback – arrived on schedule. They were quickly allowed to pass through Russian checkpoints near two Georgian villages on the perimeter of the so-called security zone.
“The situation is very calm,” said Ivan Kukushkin, a Russian officer in charge of the checkpoint near the Georgian village of Kvenatkotsa.
Russia still plans to keep around 7,600 troops in South Ossetia and the other breakaway region of Abkhazia, which the EU and U.S. consider to be violations of its cease-fire commitments. Moscow has refused to allow the EU monitors inside the regions themselves.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said there are no ideological grounds for a new Cold War or any other kind of conflict with the United States, a staunch supporter of Georgia’s pro-Western government.
“We do not have such ideological differences around which a new cold or any other kind of war could start,” Medvedev said at a news conference after meeting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero outside St. Petersburg, Russia.
Under cease-fire agreements brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the EU, Russian troops are to withdraw from so-called security zones surrounding South Ossetia and the other Russian-backed separatist region, Abkhazia, within 10 days of the EU deployment Wednesday.
There was no evidence of an imminent Russian withdrawal.
“The Russians gave us plans for dismantling their (checkpoints) but didn’t say when,” EU mission director Hansjoerg Haber told reporters.
Medvedev vowed to abide by Russian commitments.
“Russian peacekeepers will be completely withdrawn from Georgian territory within the established time frame, as determined in the agreement,” Medvedev said.
He clearly did not mean Russia would withdraw from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it has recognized as independent and no longer considers part of Georgia.