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What Lessons Should Georgians Draw From War Probe Findings?

  • Salome Zurabishvili

Georgian soldiers stand guard at the opening of the Mukhadverdi memorial honoring those killed in the 2008 war.

Georgian soldiers stand guard at the opening of the Mukhadverdi memorial honoring those killed in the 2008 war.

The conclusions of the independent commission on the August 2008 war in Georgia, released in a report on September 30, should not only be noted by the European Union, which mandated the report, but should also give all parties grounds for serious thought.

The basic question of who was responsible for the conflict has long been answered. The leaders of both Russia and Georgia are at fault: the Russians for provoking rather than avoiding armed conflict, and then for overreacting, and the Georgian leader for launching a disastrous military attack and thus triggering what ended as a disaster for Georgia and for thousands of civilians.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is personally responsible to his people for having launched the military aggression against Tskhinvali, and thereby giving Russia a free hand to enter, occupy, and formally recognize the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This judgment was passed by the vast majority of the Georgian people months before the commission led by diplomat Heidi Tagliavini made its conclusions public. The sentence was pronounced this spring, when for some 100 days hundreds of thousands of Georgians participated in repeated demonstrations to demand that Saakashvili resign and schedule early presidential elections.

A president who brought destruction on his country because of his misguided and willful decisions should answer for those actions and be held responsible. There will undoubtedly be further mass protests with the aim of forcing Saakashvili to comply with international norms and bow to the will of his people.

What has changed with the Tagliavini commission's findings is that this judgment has been legitimized and accepted by the international community; neither the Georgian president nor the Russian authorities are immune from blame and responsibility.

Time To Move Forward

As a democratic opposition leader, I think that our duty to both Georgian and international opinion is to confront this reality and try to move on from there.

If in the future we ever want to renew ties with the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whoever succeeds Saakashvili will have to address the consequences of his actions. We shall have to ask for forgiveness for the assault upon Tskhinvali. We, the opposition -- if we are given the responsibility for Georgia's destiny -- will have to face up to the fact that, albeit to a much lesser extent, we too bear responsibility for not having more effectively opposed Saakashvili's bellicose rhetoric and instincts.

For the Georgian opposition, this entails speaking the truth about the war without fear of being branded a "Russian fifth column" by government propaganda. Trying to portray any opposition movement as a Trojan horse acting in the interest of foreign foes is and will remain a hallmark of Saakashvili's rule. We should have understood by now that such allegations typify the deceptive nature of Saakashvili's style of government.

Acknowledging Russia's share of responsibility in infringing upon Georgia's sovereignty, we should also seek ways to end this confrontation and start to rebuild a new relationship based on harsh truth, rather than on demagogic lies on both sides.

Beyond our borders, our friends too have to reconcile themselves to the report's findings, which most of them already knew, but did not fully want to admit to. The first clear lesson is that while Saakashvili may cast himself as the strongest detractor of Vladimir Putin, that alone does not make him a better democrat, or a better candidate for preserving stability in a crucial region on Europe's distant borders.

In fact, the August war was, if anything, a war between autocrats. This war took place precisely because neither country applied democratic decision-making procedures before resorting to military force.

Clear Demands Needed

Since both regimes are still in place, another disaster is not out of the question. In order to prevent such a repetition and new confrontation and destabilization, Europe and the United States should make clear what they expect and require from the two perpetrators.

From Saakashvili, nothing less than real progress towards democracy should be demanded. This is also what the vast majority of the Georgian population has been demanding since the Rose Revolution of November 2003. The demonstrations which have regularly taken place since November 2007 testify to the Georgian people's yearning for genuine democratic rule.

Western governments should make their demands clear: media freedom, a truly independent judiciary, the protection of private property. But official promises should no longer be taken at face value: Western governments should impose strict conditions on any form of financial assistance.

From Russia, respect for existing agreements should be one of the conditions for a true "reset" of relations with the West. The question of the preexisting conflict zones and their return to Georgia is not one that can realistically be addressed at the present time. It should and will be discussed at some future date as one component of a global discussion of European security. Abkhazia and South Ossetia will return to Georgian control only as part of a grand bargain between Europe, Russia, and the United States.

The same does not hold true, however, of the two regions that were "forcibly occupied and annexed" during last summer's war and kept in violation of the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreements. Russia should be called on to return to the positions it occupied before August 7. The Akhalgori/Ksani and Liakhvi valleys on the South Ossetian side and the Kodori valley adjacent to Abkhazia are currently occupied in blatant violation of the agreement Moscow signed with the EU presidency. The Tagliavini report rightly points out that Kodori was not under Abkhaz control prior to that date, nor was the Georgian side responsible for launching the aggression there.

We in the Georgian democratic opposition do not for one moment doubt that Ambassador Tagliavini and her colleagues were inspired by the quest for truth and objectivity, and the desire to promote political stability and the rule of law. But their report will effectively serve peace and stability in the region only if we regard it as offering new dimensions to think about our common future. If we do not, it will remain no more than 1,000 pages of print that mask the EU's unwillingness to engage itself with greater determination, which by partially substantiating the one-sided arguments of both Russia and Georgia could trigger a renewed confrontation in the Caucasus.

We want that report to mark a new beginning for all conflict parties. Only then will the effort and expenditure that went into the report not have been in vain.

Salome Zurabishvili served from 2004-2005 as Georgia's foreign minister. She currently heads the opposition political party Georgia's Way. The views expressed in this commentary are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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