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EU Report On 2008 War Tilts Against Georgia

Russian soldiers pause on their way to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, at the start of the August, 2008, conflict.
Russian soldiers pause on their way to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, at the start of the August, 2008, conflict.
BRUSSELS -- An international report into the causes of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 accuses Georgia of starting the hostilities, but divides the blame for the conflict between both sides.

The Swiss official who presented the 1,200-page report to a select gathering of international diplomats said the document aimed to show the facts about the 2008 war in a "sober and neutral manner."

Heidi Tagliavini, who is the head of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG) told representatives from Georgia, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the report was simply a collection of objective findings, and nothing else.

That the report leaves others to interpret those facts, however, may yet prove to be its Achilles' heel.

Deep divisions over Russia policy within the EU -- which originally commissioned the report -- have left the bloc unwilling and unable to use the report, and its own political authority, to draw a line under the conflict.

In the absence of authoritative international guidance, Russian and Georgian officials quickly made a series of claims and counterclaims blaming the other side for the war.

Moscow had a distinct edge in this because it had won what EU sources say was its crucial objective -- to have the Tagliavini report say Georgia started the hostilities.

Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, drove home the point during his press conference in Brussels.

"It provides an unequivocal confirmation -- an unequivocal answer to the main question: who started the war,” Chizhov said. “And it says squarely that it was the Georgian massive shelling and artillery attack on the city of Tskhinval [known in Georgia as Tskhinvali] on the night of the 7th to 8th August 2008."

Speaking in Tbilisi, the Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili made the opposite claim and called attention to parts of the report that detail Russian breaches of international law that it says escalated the tensions.

"I would like to emphasize that the document does not claim that Georgia started the war. Any such interpretations would be a lie. The report makes no such claim,” Iakobashvili said. “Furthermore, the report says that the war did not start on August 7 or 8, but that the military provocation had been prepared for a long time."

Boiling Point

The report itself lays the blame for initiating armed conflict at Georgia’s feet, but suggests that both parties share the blame for the long-simmering conflict.

The key passage in the document reads: "The shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia, yet it was only the culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents."

More damning for Georgia, however, are the words uttered by Tagliavini as she summed up the gist of the report for international diplomats in Brussels. She said in her team’s view, “it was Georgia which triggered off the war," and "none of the explanations given by the Georgia authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack [on Tshkinvali] lend it a valid explanation."

In her remarks, Tagliavini stressed that the "crux of the report" is not a political, military, or legal truth -- which she says will always remain contested -- but the "human suffering and tragedy that is always and inevitably the result of armed confrontation."

Violations Of International Law

The report, although clearly aiming for a careful balance in assigning blame, limits its assessment of Russia's role to within the framework of tensions which have arisen from the historically, ethnically, and politically complex situation in Georgia.

Tagliavini said that while "the onus of having actually triggered off the war lies with the Georgian side, the Russian side, too, carries the blame for a substantial number of violations of international law."

She said chief among those are the "mass conferral of Russian citizenship" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the presence of non-peacekeeping Russian troops in South Ossetia before the war, the disproportionate Russian military action on Georgian territory, Russia’s long-standing support for the separatist authorities in the two regions, and its post-war recognition of the two territories as independent states.

The report says Russian allegations claiming Georgia had carried out ethnic cleansing or genocide against South Ossetians are not substantiated. But it also says "there are serious question marks" when it comes to the inaction of the Russian army in allowing South Ossetian irregulars to commit atrocities against the civilian Georgian population.

Georgia's ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, focused on these and other numerous Russian infractions of international norms and standards during a press conference in Brussels.

She did not directly dispute the report's conclusion that Georgia had initiated the hostilities, but she said that while interpretations differ, the government in Tbilisi had a legal right to protect its citizens in South Ossetia whose lives it believed were in danger.

"In that sense I believe that the question of when the Georgian government considered it necessary to take action to protect the lives of its citizens, when we considered that the threshold had been passed -- we might have a difference of opinion with the European side in this sense, because I don't think Georgia has ever denied that the government took an action to protect its citizens,” Samadashvili said. “Madame Tagliavini and her commission might consider that this was not the right moment to take this step."

Tagliavini’s report admits that it may fall short of "absolute veracity" since there could be other information that wasn’t available to the team of investigators.

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