After last year’s war between Russia and Georgia, which left at least 250
people dead and parts of Georgia in ruin, both countries were eager to point
the finger of blame at one another for starting the conflict. On Wednesday,
an independent investigating team issued a highly anticipated report saying
that neither country can escape fault.
In the 1,100-page report, the investigators said that Georgia fired the
first shots in the August 2008 conflict when it launched an attack on the
breakaway region of South Ossetia, which the team deemed “unjustifiable”
under international law. But the report, which was sponsored by the European
Union, said the attack followed months of Russian provocation, including a
heavy military build-up in the region and increased support for separatist
movements in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region of
The report was written over nine months by Heidi Tagliavini, a Swiss
diplomat leading the inquiry, with the help of 19 European military, legal
and history experts tasked with investigating the “causes and roots” of the
conflict. The war lasted just five days: Russian forces quickly repelled the
Georgian assault and advanced deep into Georgian territory, only pulling
back when a ceasefire was brokered. Yet, soldiers remain on the border
between the two countries to this day and tensions have not subsided.
The inquiry says the conflict started the moment Georgia shelled the South
Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on the night of Aug. 7-8, 2008. “In the
mission’s view, it was Georgia which triggered off the war when it attacked
Tskhinvali with heavy artillery,” Tagliavini said in a statement
accompanying the report. The document condemns the bombing, saying it was a
overly aggressive response to the provocation. “It is not possible to accept
that the shelling of Tskhinvali … would satisfy the requirements of having
been necessary and proportionate in order to defend those villages,” it
Russian officials were quick to claim that the report cleared them of
culpability. “Who started the war On that question the report gives an
unequivocal answer,” says Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the E.U.
But Russia received its fair share of blame. The attack by Georgia was “the
culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations and
incidents,” the report said. In the run-up to the war, Russia issued
passports to South Ossetian citizens, which the investigators said “runs
against the principles of good neighborliness and constitutes an open
challenge to Georgian sovereignty and an interference in the internal
affairs of Georgia.” More ominously, the report noted that there seemed to
be an “influx of volunteers or mercenaries” from Russia to South Ossetia in
early August 2008.
The inquiry rejects outright Russian allegations that Georgia had carried
out a genocide against the South Ossetian population, but it accepts
Tbilisi’s charges that ethnic cleansing took place against Georgians driven
from South Ossetia in the conflict.
Georgia said the investigation proved that Russia had been preparing for war
all along. “We are glad that almost all the facts we have alleged have been
confirmed, in particular that armed Russian units entered Georgia before
August 7,” says Salome Samadashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to the E.U. “The
report confirmed that Russia committed an act of aggression against a
sovereign state, thus breaking the U.N. charter.”
Beyond Tbilisi and Moscow, the report was welcomed as a basis for both sides
to start anew. Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian member of the European Parliament
who sits on a committee focused on Georgian affairs, says it is important to
look beyond mere finger pointing. “It is not helpful to start a blame
game both sides played their role and share the blame. And both sides need
to do something to resolve the issue,” she says.
But Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director of the nonprofit organization
Crisis Group, is skeptical about whether the report will change anything.
“Russia has firmly reestablished its geopolitical position in the region, so
there is almost no prospect of Georgian reunification,” he says. Since the
ceasefire, Russian troops have effectively sealed the border between South
Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, and increased their military presence in
both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But while Moscow has recognized South
Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations, only Nicaragua and Venezuela
have followed suit.
In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili, once considered a champion of
democracy in the region, has seen his stature fall at home and abroad since
the conflict. However, street protests in April failed to topple him and he
still has friends in high places: the Obama administration. Vice President
Joe Biden visited Tbilisi in July and pledged continued U.S. support for
efforts by Georgia and Ukraine to break free of Russia’s orbit.
The authors of the report note that the security situation in the region has
not improved. “Though both sides stress their commitment to a peaceful
future, the risk of a new confrontation remains serious,” the document
reads. If the reactions of Georgia and Russia to the inquiry’s findings are
anything to go by, whatever lessons the report holds may well be lost.
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