#23 - JRL 2009-182 - JRL Home

RIA Novosti
October 1, 2009
The EU and the autopsy of the Caucasian conflict

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - The long wait for the European Union's report on the Caucasian conflict is finally over. It appears that both sides are to blame.

Georgia first started the conflict, while Russia fuelled separatist attitudes, provoked Tbilisi, and used Georgia's actions against South Ossetia to further its own interests and occupy part of Georgia's territory. These are the main conclusions of the long-awaited, 900-page EU report on the August 2008 war.

The European Commission ordered the report on the causes and course of this five-day war almost nine months ago, and received it only on September 30. The report's publication has been delayed since last July.

In theory, the report does not openly specify who is to blame for what, because its objectives did not include assigning blame to any party. But it is clearly impossible not to draw such a conclusion from the document's 900 pages of facts. It is clear from a brief summary of the report (a more detailed analysis will take much longer) that Georgia was the first to pull the trigger. But Russia also played its part. Moscow was ready for such a scenario, and used Mikheil Saakashvili's mistake to move into not only into South Ossetia but also Abkhazia.

In summary, the main conclusions are not sensational, except of course for the first official admission that Saakashvili started the war (although his personal contribution is not mentioned). But it is clear from the timing of the events that Russia and some other countries were telling the truth.

The conflict set the Baltic and Polish contingent of the EU at loggerheads with the Western members. Rehashing the conflict is a thankless task. It is obvious that no matter the report's conclusion, one of the sides will not like them. As the authors of the report admit themselves, they have done all they could to filter the existing facts as much as possible, abstain from dogmatic conclusions and a search for culprits, and assess the war without emotion or political bias.

One can take this as one will. However, when experts submit their work to diplomats, the results sometimes undergo amazing change. It is common knowledge that the authors of the report were pressured by various parties, particularly by the Saakashvili government. The Georgian president's Integration Minister Temuri Yakobashvili even said a couple of months ago that two of the experts were on Gazprom's payroll. A day before the report's publication, Georgian officials told Western journalists at a special briefing that the main conclusion of the report was that Russia is guilty of war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and that some Russian units had even entered South Ossetia in advance, thus provoking Georgia's shelling of Tskhinvali.

Yakobashvili announced that it does not matter who started the war and blamed Russians for their attempts to reduce the debate to this issue. The main point is that Russia was preparing for the war in advance.

This sounds a bit odd in light of the fact that the Georgian president has always maintained that Moscow attacked South Ossetia and Georgia had to repel this aggression. Nevertheless, Tbilisi had previously claimed that it was "restoring constitutional order" in Tskhinvali and "restoring its control over the city," and later that the shelling was necessary to protect Georgian villages against separatist attacks. Only later did Georgian officials begin talking about "Russian aggression."

But Saakashvili has given so many different explanations for the start of the war that he has even confused his own minister. All the more so since the Georgian president has always been very sensitive to any reports on this war.

The report was prepared by the Geneva-based International Independent Fact Finding Mission into the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG), which is officially completely independent of Brussels. The Mission is headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who has written several books on the Caucasus and its recent conflicts, and is considered an expert on this subject. Her group included about 30 European experts - former ambassadors, defense ministers, other military officials, and historians. They had to collect a huge amount of information and testimony, systematize all of it, and then present it so as not to offend anyone or rekindle more hostility either in the Caucasus or in Europe.

Geneva seems to have been created to smooth out rough edges and neutralize acids. It can take in some very unpleasant people and produce something more or less neutral and civilized. Of course, you could say this is sugarcoating the facts, but this is part and parcel of any political debate, and is absolutely necessary in some situations.

It follows from the report that although Georgia started the conflict, it has already punished itself, while Russia is also responsible for exploiting the prelude and the aftermath of the war.

If we omit some details, the conclusions are generally correct. It is clear what Georgia has done. And nobody is arguing with the fact that Moscow used the events before and after the war to further its own interests. It would have been criminal and irresponsible not to use an opportunity to protect a small nation against an attack from the country that had been trying to destroy it since the end of the first Georgian-Ossetian war in 1992. It would have been strange to expect Moscow to be indifferent to all the commotion on its southern border. Perhaps this would have been possible under Boris Yeltsin, but not now that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have enjoyed de facto independence for almost 15 years.

It would be useful to remember that this conflict did not come as a bolt from the blue. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned his then counterpart Condoleezza Rice that Saakashvili had been preparing to resolve the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force. He issued this warning three times -- two months, one month, and two weeks before the Georgian invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It is still necessary to analyze the details of the report, but judging from the main conclusion, Saakashvili will now face more problems with his political legitimacy and shaken reputation. Be that as it may, the report has refuted his main argument that Russia unleashed the conflict. Let us recall that at first he accused Moscow of sacrilegiously timing its aggression with the opening of the Olympic Games.

After the report, PACE is very likely to reconsider Georgia's proposal to deprive Russia of its voting rights in that council. The vote on the Tbilisi-proposed resolution is due Thursday, October 1. It will be very awkward to support this resolution after Geneva's autopsy of the Caucasian conflict.

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