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EU-Backed Report To Split Blame For Russian-Georgia War

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A woman walks past buildings ruined in the August 2008 fighting in South Ossetia's Tskhinvali.

A woman walks past buildings ruined in the August 2008 fighting in South Ossetia's Tskhinvali.

BRUSSELS -- A long-awaited report on the causes of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 will split the blame between the two sides, according to EU officials familiar with the document.

The EU's Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, told RFE/RL that he believed the document -- which he said he had not seen yet -- contains nothing "fundamentally" new.

Officials in Brussels are acutely aware of the risks of alienating either Moscow, a key energy supplier whose cooperation is desired in a host of areas, or Tbilisi, whose political standing took a beating over the 2008 conflict despite broad Western support for its aims of keeping Georgian territory intact.

The report, compiled by a group of international experts led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, was presented to EU and other ambassadors in Brussels on September 30 and later released to the public.

Initial reaction from Russia's envoy was that the document laid the blame for the outbreak of fighting on Tbilisi, while Georgian officials countered that it concluded that Moscow had planned the conflict.

But the unveiling of the "Tagliavini report" could be regarded as something of an anticlimax.

EU ambassadors will be briefed on its contents over a low-key lunch. There will be no formal ceremony to mark the handing over of the more than 500-page document. There will also be no formal discussion of the report's contents among EU member states, nor will an official EU position be adopted relative to its conclusions.

What the EU wants is closure, officials suggest. The bloc believes no one has anything to gain from protracted finger-pointing and wants to get on with the Geneva talks between Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia on defusing tensions and allowing refugees return to their homes.

"What I can say is that I believe that now, more than a year after the war and after quite a few studies and reports have been published on the topic, I think that most of the events are fairly well known,” Semneby said. “I expect that this study, which is quite a thorough one, is probably going to reveal a few new facts, but I would be surprised if it would reveal anything that would fundamentally change our picture of the course of events."

Privately, EU officials have told RFE/RL the report will not be a "one-way street," blaming Georgia alone, as some early leaks have suggested. Instead, it will apportion blame relatively equally on Georgia and Russia.

The report is expected to roughly follow the established Western take on the events, according to which Georgia overreacted to severe and long-standing Russian provocations. While the Georgian military may have fired the first shots, it was Russia's meddling in the irredentist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which had set in motion the chain of events leading up to the war.

Georgian officials appear to be resigned to being given some of the blame. But one senior official told RFE/RL that Tbilisi believes it has "the law on its side." The official also alluded to Russia's long history of involvement in Georgian affairs, noting that "the war did not start on August 7, 2008."

Recriminations Expected

To date, only Nicaragua and Venezuela have joined Russia in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia's early charges of a Georgian-conducted genocide in South Ossetia and other war crimes have not been substantiated.

Georgia now expects a long cold war of attrition with Russia. The official quoted above said the report's release is likely to be followed by a few days of mutual recriminations between Georgia and Russia, which will then eventually subside.

This is broadly in line with EU expectations.

Semneby said the bloc will leave interpreting the report to others.

"It's not, obviously, the ultimate truth about the war, but rather should be seen as a contribution to highlighting the facts around what is a very complex series of events that started actually...long before the war in August of last year," Semneby said.

The EU, which helped to end the war in August 2008, is now a key mediator in the Geneva talks.

The bloc's interests, however, are broader. It needs a working relationship with Russia. Moscow is seen as a strategic partner in the EU. Its energy deliveries are vital for the bloc, as is cooperation with Moscow in many other fields.

Georgia, on the other hand, remains a key part of the EU's Eastern Partnership outreach program. Although Tbilisi's standing in EU eyes has slipped since the war -- a fact acknowledged by Georgian officials, too -- the bloc remains committed to helping the country.

The EU's monitoring mission (EUMM) along the demarcation lines between Georgia proper and Abkhazia and South Ossetia now represents the only involvement of the international community in the conflict zone. Earlier this year, Russia was instrumental in securing the ejection of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from South Ossetia, and that of a UN mission from Abkhazia.

Meanwhile Georgian hopes of getting the United States to join the EUMM have been dashed. Objections from EU member states such as France, fearing complications in the EU-Russia relationship, have caused the idea to be shelved.

Adjusting to new realities, Georgia has toned down its expectations of the EU accordingly. Economic assistance is now foremost on the minds of Georgian officials.

On the political front, Tbilisi knows that hanging on to the status quo will be difficult enough, with the EU increasingly preoccupied with its own constitutional future, expected to be settled in the remaining months of the year. Then, Spain will take over the rotating half-yearly EU presidency from Sweden, to be followed by Belgium. Neither country is as interested in the eastern neighborhood as Sweden, so Tbilisi will face an uphill struggle to retain a presence on EU radar.

Correspondingly, Georgian officials can now only hope for signals of continued EU support.

Kahtleen Moore contributed to this report

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