Oct 8, 2009

EU report sparks new wave of accusations

The report of the independent international fact-finding mission on the conflict in Georgia headed by a Swiss diplomat concluded that both Russia and Georgia share the blame for the 2008 war. The release of the report sparked immediate interpretations in Tbilisi and Moscow, with both sides claiming that the document backs their version of the war.

Although the fact-finding mission led by Heidi Tagliavini stressed that it is strictly limited to establishing facts and “is not a tribunal,” the report is considered to be the most reliable and objective probe at a time of conflicting information and endless spin between Tbilisi and Moscow.
This is the first mission of its kind in the history of the EU.
“The mission has met with an almost unhoped-for high and indeed very welcome degree of cooperation from all the sides directly involved in the conflict, and in many instances from outside actors as well,” according to a report issued by the mission.
There are no winners from the 2008 conflict because both sides have lost ground in the hopes and prospects for the future, according to the report.

Georgia triggers conflict, Russia uses disproportionate force

The report was released after a nine-month investigation concluded that Georgia started an armed conflict on the night of Aug. 7-8, but the findings also put blame on Russia for violations of international law and use of “disproportionate” force.
Although the report said that the open hostilities began with a large-scale Georgian military operation against Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, it stressed that the explanation of the origins of the war “cannot focus solely on the artillery attack on Tskhinvali in the night of Aug. 7-8 and on what then developed into the questionable Georgian offensive in South Ossetia and the Russian military action.”
“The evaluation also has to cover the run-up to the war during the years before and the mounting tensions in the months and weeks immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities,” the report reads. “It must also take into account years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence both inside and outside the conflict zone.”
Georgian officials commented on the report and stressed their interpretation of the claim that the start of the war in August was a culminating point after years of provocations.
“The report proved that the war did not start on Aug. 7 but was a result of long term aggression against Georgia and the report also proved that unfortunately the international community failed to prevent this conflict,” Georgian Ambassador to the EU Salome Samadashvili said at a press conference in Brussels, claiming that the report backed all the facts Georgia tabulated since the day the war began.
However, for international media and the societies of both countries the question was who shot first, and in this regard the report seemed to appease Russian officials. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the efforts of the EU commission “have not been wasted.”
“From the report published on Sept. 30, any sane person would come to the core conclusion that the aggression against South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7-8, 2008 was unleashed by the current leadership of Georgia,” the ministry said in a statement. “Ultimately, it is the main outcome of the work of the Tagliavini commission.”
The comments from the head of the commission also left few doubts about the findings of the international investigators.
“In the mission’s view, it was Georgia that triggered the war when it attacked Tskhinvali with heavy artillery,” said Tagliavini, as quoted by Reuters.
In addition to the grave conclusion, the head of the commission dismissed hopes that the Georgian attack might be justified.
“None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack lend it a valid explanation,” Tagliavini said.
The document reads that the mission is not “in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated” the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before Aug. 8, despite evidence that reports that Russia provided training and military equipment to South Ossetian and Abkhazian forces before Aug. 8.
The report also claims that there seems to have been an influx of volunteers or mercenaries from Russia to South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel and over the Caucasus range in early August as well as the presence of some Russian forces in South Ossetia, other than the Russian joint peacekeeping forces, prior to 14:30 hours on Aug. 8, 2008.
The report also stated that the morning of Aug. 8, prior to the time given in the Russian official information, the Russian air force started operations “against Georgian targets, including those outside South Ossetian administrative boundaries.”
Georgian State Reintegration Minister Temuri Yakobashvili stressed that the document dismissed all arguments that Russia used to justify its intervention into a sovereign country, but Georgia disagrees with some of the report’s findings.
“We disagree on some assessments in the report,” he said. “Firstly the interpretation and opinion that there was no large scale intervention of Russian forces because it contradicts with the report itself.”
The Georgian government said in an official statement on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site that “almost all of the facts in the report confirm the Georgian version of events,” but it “regrets that while the commission has proven that Russian troops were illegally in Georgia, it fails to call this an invasion.”
The government underscores in the statement that it was the “invasion that triggered the conflict.”
“The verified illegal presence in Georgia’s sovereign territory of non-peacekeeping Russian troops, in violation of all international agreements, can only be called an invasion,” the statement reads.
Official Tbilisi claims that the report confirms the obvious – that Russia invaded Georgia. Major findings of the report include evidence of at least some Russian regular non-peacekeeping troops entering Georgia prior to Aug. 8, proof of separatist forces armed and trained by Russia in defiance of international law, indication of Russian-backed separatist forces breaking international law by attacking Georgian civilians in the days before Aug. 7, and the conclusion that the “vastly superior political and military weight of Russia toppled the balance of what might have been possible otherwise, if at all, in terms of arrangements between Tbilisi and its two breakaway provinces.”
The report says Georgia’s use of force in South Ossetia was not justifiable by international law. Earlier Georgia acknowledged the non-use of force commitment under legally binding international documents, such as the 1992 Sochi Agreement and 1996 Memorandum on Measures to Provide Security and Strengthen Mutual Trust between the Sides in the Georgian-South Ossetian Conflict.
“Even if it were assumed that Georgia was repelling an attack, e.g. in response to South Ossetian attacks against Georgian-populated villages in the region, according to international law, its armed response would have to be both necessary and proportional,” the report reads.
“It is not possible to accept that the shelling of Tskhinvali during much of the night with GRAD multiple rocket launchers and heavy artillery would satisfy the requirements of having been necessary and proportionate in order to defend those villages.”
Tbilisi said it disagrees with the commission that Georgia used unnecessary and disproportionate force.
“No democratic government can survive if, when foreign forces enter its territory, it fails to defend its citizens,” the statement reads. “Georgia acted as any democratic nation would have done – a fact that is impossible for an reasonable observer to deny.”
The Georgian government said that “while the report acknowledges that Russia armed and supported Tskhinvali and Abkhaz separatists, it avoids assigning the responsibility for their actions to the Russian Federation.”
“Nevertheless, there is extensive evidence to prove Russia’s direct control of proxy authorities,” reads the report. “Furthermore, while acknowledging the military buildup and assistance to proxies, as well the influx of mercenaries attacking civilian populations, the report fails to highlight the flagrant violations committed by the Russian peacekeepers – although all these actions were strictly forbidden by all international agreements.”
Meanwhile, the government stressed that Russia’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of Georgians continues.

Russia “went far beyond limits of defense”

The Russian reaction is divided into two phases in the report – the immediate reaction to defend Russian peacekeepers and the invasion of Georgia beyond the administrative boundary of South Ossetia.
“In the first instance, there seems to be little doubt that if the Russian peacekeepers were attacked, Russia had the right to defend them using military means proportionate to the attack. Hence the Russian use of force for defensive purposes during the first phase of the conflict would be legal,” according to the report.
But Russia’s response and its drive beyond the administrative border were assessed as a violation of international law. Much of the Russian military action “went far beyond the reasonable limits of defense,” the report stated.
“This holds true for all kinds of massive and extended military action ranging from the bombing of the upper Kodori Valley to the deployment of armored units to reach extensive parts of Georgia, to the setting up of military positions in and nearby major Georgian towns as well as to control major highways, and to the deployment of navy units on the Black Sea,” reads the report.
“All this cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.”
The destruction after the ceasefire agreement “was not justifiable by any means,” according to the report, concluding that “insofar as such extended Russian military action reaching out into Georgia was conducted in violation of international law.”
Russia’s arguments for justifying its actions were also dismissed by the international inquiry. In response to whether the use of force by Russia could be justified as a “humanitarian intervention” to protect South Ossetian civilians, the report found that humanitarian intervention to prevent human rights violations abroad is “allowed only under very limited circumstances,” but Russia as a directly neighboring state, has important political and other interests of its own in South Ossetia and the region.
“In such a constellation, a humanitarian intervention is not recognized at all,” according to the report.
Russia’s attempt to justify its actions by the need to protect its own citizens in South Ossetia was also dismissed.
“If at all, such actions should be limited in scope and duration and exclusively focused on rescuing and evacuating nationals. In the case at hand, the action was not solely and exclusively focused on rescuing and evacuating Russian citizens, but largely surpassed this threshold by embarking upon extended military operations over large parts of Georgia,” the report stated. “Consequently, it must be concluded that the Russian military action outside South Ossetia was essentially conducted in violation of international law.”
Investigators found evidence of ethnic cleansing by South Ossetia forces or irregular armed groups. There was also evidence “of systematic looting and destruction of ethnic Georgian villages” in South Ossetia.
“Even at the time of the writing of this report, the situation in the Akhalgori district at the southeast end of South Ossetia continues to be a matter of concern, as ethnic Georgians are still leaving the region,” the report stated.
To the contrary, investigators found no proof for backing the Russian and rebel leadership’s claims of “genocide” carried out by Georgia. The mission concluded: “To the best of its knowledge allegations of genocide committed by the Georgian side in the context of the August 2008 conflict and its aftermath are neither founded in law nor substantiated by factual evidence.”

Report increases tensions inside Georgia

Despite Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili calling the report a “victory,” the long-awaited document sparked a new wave of allegations and criticism toward the country’s leader in the internal political arena.
The governmental officials and the opposition assessed the findings in the report as overall “objective.” However, while the lawmakers ruling party questioned the claims in the report concerning of the Russian intervention, the opposition saw backing for their claims against the authorities and re-voiced the demand of a need to change Georgia’s leadership.
“Even the authorities cannot deny that the report is objective despite the fact that the report has the gravest assessment for our country and the authorities themselves,” said Nino Burjanadze, leader of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia, adding that no reaction may bring catastrophic results to the country.
For Burjanadze, the claim in the report is clear. The reason for the five-day offensive was the massive artillery shelling of Tskhinvali by Georgia.
The opposition, saw Russia as the main aggressor and stressed the failure of the Georgian government to avoid hostilities.
In its statement, Alliance for Georgia said that the president made an irresponsible decision to open fire on Tskhinvali and by doing so put Georgia’s statehood and future under threat.
“This was a result of improper political decisions that have been made for years,” said Irakli Alasania, leader of the alliance.
He stressed that at the same time, Russia is fully responsible for aggression against a sovereign state and occupation that sacrificed hundreds of lives and caused tens thousands of displaced people.
The report does not deter the agenda of the internal politics and a constitutional and peaceful change to the Georgian government is needed, Alasania said.