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Georgia Argues Its Case To OSCE, Seeks To Lay Blame On Russia

  • Brian Whitmore

When did Russia's tanks start moving?

When did Russia's tanks start moving?

As part of its effort to convince the international community that Russia was to blame for the armed conflict over South Ossetia, Georgia has taken its case to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

During a closed-door meeting this week of the OSCE's Forum for Security Cooperation in Vienna, the Georgian delegation presented what it called "documents proving that Russia planned the aggression" that led to outbreak of armed conflict between the two countries on August 7-8.

"We have gathered [information] going back two to three years, from the immediate aftermath of the Rose Revolution, about the provocations Russia had carried out before the war," Ilia Giorgadze, senior councilor of Tbilisi's Mission to the OSCE, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service after the September 24 session. "Then we touched upon the actual period of war -- what happened, and how it happened, during that time, and most importantly, what happened after the war."

Giorgadze said he used telephone intercepts, Western and Russian press reports, published interviews with Russian soldiers and officers, and satellite images to make Georgia's case. Most of the information, he said, is publicly available.

Central to the Georgian case is the argument that Russian forces had already crossed into the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent his troops into the province. Russia insists its troops entered South Ossetia only after the Georgians moved in just before midnight on August 7.

Two Intercepts And A Tunnel

To bolster Georgia's claims, Giorgadze presented what he said were two intercepted telephone conversations between a South Ossetian border guard identified only by his surname, Gassiyev, and his supervisor.

In one intercept, from 3:41 a.m. on August 7, Gassiev told his supervisor that a Russian colonel had asked Ossetian border guards to inspect military vehicles that had "crowded" the Roki Tunnel linking Russia's republic of North Ossetia to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

At 3:52, Gassiyev called his supervisor again to tell him that the tanks and armored vehicles had cleared the tunnel and had entered South Ossetia. The supervisor asked him if "the armor" had arrived. Gassiyev responded that the "tanks" and "armored [personnel] carriers" had indeed arrived.

Georgia had already circulated the intercepts among U.S. and European intelligence agencies and "The New York Times" reported on them on September 16.

Moscow does not deny the authenticity of the intercepts, but disputes their significance. General Nikolai Uvarov, who served as a spokesman for the Russian military during the war, told "The New York Times" that the troop movements through the Roki Tunnel on the morning of August 7 were part of the routine supply and reinforcement of Russian peacekeepers serving in South Ossetia.

But Georgian officials have pointed out that such reinforcements required one-month notification and subsequent approval by the Georgian side. This requirement was part of the terms of a cease-fire that stopped fighting between Georgia and South Ossetia in 1992 and introduced Ossetian, Russian, and Georgian peacekeeping units onto the scene.

Such notification was not given, Georgian officials say.

Georgian officials say the information is only now coming to light, more than a month after the fact, because the file containing the intercepts was lost during the war and only recently recovered. They add that hundreds of such recordings remain to be evaluated.

The new information differs from earlier accounts given by Georgian authorities about when Russian forces moved through the Roki Tunnel.

Speaking to RFE/RL in late August, Shota Utiashvili, director of the intelligence-analysis team at the Georgian Interior Ministry, said Tbilisi received reports later in the day on August 7 that Russian forces were moving through the tunnel.

"The tanks were standing in columns, barrels [pointing] to Georgia. And around midday on the seventh [of August] we got [intelligence] reports that this column got an order to start moving to Georgia," Utiashvili said. "It was a massive force. On this first column that entered Georgia they had at least 12,000 people and at least 1,000 pieces of armor -- armor and trucks. This force was large enough that it could come to Tbilisi if there was nobody to stop them."

Utiashvili could not be immediately reached for comment.

Soldiers Phoning Home

During their presentation at the OSCE, Georgian officials also cited Russian press reports and interviews with soldiers and officers suggesting that the Russian military -- not only peacekeepers -- was in South Ossetia before fighting broke out.

The official newspaper of the Russian Defense Ministry, "Krasnaya zvezda," published an article on September 3 quoting army Captain Denis Sidristy as saying that he and his unit had been ordered to move from his camp in North Ossetia to the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on August 7. "We were raised on an alarm -- and sent on a march," the newspaper quoted Sidristy as saying.

The Russian Defense Ministry later changed the date in Sidristy's quote to August 8 and said he confused the dates due to an injury suffered in the fighting.

Georgian officials also cited an article in the newspaper "Permskiye novosti" that cited a phone conversation between an unidentified soldier and his mother. According the account of the phone conversation, the soldier tells his mother he is in Tskhinvali, adding: "I have very little time. Look, we are here since August 7, the whole 58th Army."

Russia dismisses Georgia's claims and insists that its forces moved into South Ossetia to protect Russian passport-holders and its peacekeeping force there.

Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on September 16, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it might take an independent investigation to sort out how the war began.

"An independent inquiry -- also supported, as you know, by the European Union -- is perhaps the right way to go in this regard," de Hoop Scheffer said. "And let me not now go into what happened when, where, and at what hour -- but I think it might be useful that an independent inquiry can establish facts."

The March To War

Georgian officials stress that the context leading up to the outbreak of armed conflict on August 7 is as important as what happened that day.

In late April, Vladimir Putin, who was in the last month of his presidency, signed a decree authorizing direct relations with and assistance for South Ossetia and another Moscow-backed separatist province, Abkhazia.

Shortly thereafter, Russia deployed 1,500 additional troops, some of them heavily armed, to its "peacekeeping" contingent in Abkhazia. This again came without Georgia's consent and in violation of a 1994 cease-fire agreement that ended fighting in that region.

Russia began shooting down unmanned Georgian drone aircraft that were conducting reconnaissance over Abkhazia. Russian military aircraft also began regularly violating Georgian airspace near the separatist territory.

In June, Russia deployed unarmed troops to Abkhazia to rebuild a rail link between the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, and the Black Sea city of Ochamchire. U.S. and Georgian officials later pointed out that the railway was used to transport military equipment and munitions into Georgia during the conflict.

In July, Russia's armed forces began large-scale military training exercises in the North Caucasus, near the border with South Ossetia, involving 8,000 servicemen and 700 pieces of military hardware. Russia's 58th Army, which would later spearhead the incursion into Georgia, was the key unit in those maneuvers.

The 58th Army remained in the North Caucasus after the exercises. Shortly thereafter, Georgian and South Ossetian separatist forces began exchanging artillery, mortar, and sniper fire across the de facto border. Georgian officials accuse the separatists of instigating the exchanges, but South Ossetian authorities deny the allegation.

On August 3, just days before the war started, South Ossetia began evacuating hundreds of children to Russia.

Georgia's information campaign appears aimed as much at its own domestic audience as the international community. After a period of rallying around the flag at the height of the conflict, Georgian opposition leaders have begun criticizing Saakashvili and his team and asking whether war could have been avoided.

"The government should be questioned as to whether this trap was avoidable or unavoidable. The government has to prove that this trap was unavoidable," says Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "I tend to believe that the Georgian government was provoked, but the mistake was that the Georgian government overreacted."

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