Former Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, a former ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili and now considered a possible successor, says that "the time to ask questions has come." She's calling for a probe into the events that led up to Georgia's short war with Russia to determine if the conflict could have been avoided.
Burjanadze chairs a nongovernmental group called the Foundation for Democracy and Development (FDD), which she created after quitting the ruling party shortly before parliamentary elections in May. Earlier this month, the FDD decided not to sign what is being called the Charter Of Politicians In Georgia, an agreement signed by many opposition parties and NGOs that binds them not to oppose the government in the face of Russian aggression.
Burjanadze spoke in Tbilisi with Giorgi Gvakharia of RFE/RL's Georgian Service shortly after returning to the capital from a lengthy trip to the United States and Europe.
RFE/RL: Why did your foundation not sign the Charter of Politicians of Georgia?
Nino Burjanadze: The Foundation for Democracy and Development was involved in the crisis from its very beginning, and literally around the clock. FDD members and staff were gathering and doing our best to reach out to the rest of the world and find some solution. Several days prior to my visit to the United States, I summoned the FDD council and experts to get their input on the current situation. I asked them to think of ways out of the gravest calamity we've had in this country. Today, I explained the reasons for our decision not to join the charter.
I believe it is unreasonable to impose ultimatums claiming that if we are not joining in we do not share the charter principles and thus will be regarded as nonpatriots of our own country.
RFE/RL: The charter does contain rational ideas....
Burjanadze: The charter contains all that is absolutely natural.... The charter elaborates on basic principles calling its signatories for actions within the country’s constitution, for protection of its sovereignty. These are eternal verities.
RFE/RL: It also says Georgia should strengthen its efforts to join NATO.
Burjanadze: Which is absolutely acceptable and has been said many times by each of us. If we strive to do something, we should avoid doing them for promotional purposes. Let us develop a viable document and strategy.
RFE/RL: You mentioned some time ago that you have questions for the president of Georgia and the authorities. Have you ever been prevented from asking them? What are these questions? Would you please share at least one with us?
Burjanadze: Firstly, I believe that it’s not only me who has questions. I am sure you personally have questions, too, as do our foreign friends. And the absolute majority of the Georgian population has questions, as well.
RFE/RL: And are they not asking these questions?
Burjanadze: The questions are gradually coming. As for why I kept these questions unasked for so long, I explained that, as well. On the very first day that Russian infantry crossed the Georgian border, I called on the country’s population for unity and appreciated when the whole opposition and civil society stood together in order to endure the challenge.
However, I also noted the time would come for raising questions. Even victorious countries ask questions -- whether the pursued strategy and policies were appropriate to the goal -- and we have not won. Instead, we lost bitterly. Our situation is grave, worse than it was prior to the conflict in terms of the sovereign territories [Abkhazia and South Ossetia], because de facto annexed areas now include Kodori and Akhalgori also.
When the public is told that we have won the war, that we gained a victory and should rejoice, it is unbelievable! This is cynical and shameful! Because we have not won.
The political situation is worse, too. The economic condition of the country has also worsened. And if we fail to have a proper analysis of the situation, we will not make appropriate steps forward. These questions are essential to make the adequate analysis and carry out relevant measures.
You asked what prevented me from raising those questions. I was afraid to endanger our unity in a critical period. But the main question to me remains whether the crisis was preventable.
'Delighted If I Am Proved Wrong'
RFE/RL: Today, the president of Georgia mentioned also that it is good and natural that questions are raised. In an interview with RFE/RL, Giga Bokeria, deputy foreign minister, was even surprised that there is so much talk about this issue. He believes that Georgia is a democratic country and some of its citizens were asking questions even in the most acute period of the conflict.
Burjanadze: I would say only one thing. If one listened to some of the comments by high-ranking government officials after I first announced my opinion, one would easily notice that they are justifying the legitimacy of such questions only now. I welcome that the authorities now believe that questions should be asked, might be asked, and that answers need to be given.
I do not belong to the category of people who rejoice when the government faces a problem or makes mistakes, because those mistakes reflect back on the country. I am afraid the government will not have answers to many of the questions I have. I will be delighted if I am proved wrong.
RFE/RL: I was listening to your live interview with Ekho Moskvy on August 10 or 11, at the peak of the crisis. You noted that no matter the nature of the questions toward the government, it was no time then to raise them. I guess the time has come now, but still in a recent interview with Reuters you mentioned that in anticipation of the war you advised Saakashvili not to start it. Saakashvili repeated today that he did not start the war. However, if you did advise him in anticipation, you foresaw the threat.
Burjanadze: I did not say outright that Saakashvili started the war. I cannot say it till the issue is investigated and all the documents are disclosed. We all know pretty well that the war was provoked by Russia. [South Ossetian leader Eduard] Kokoity, indeed, started to shoot and Georgian villages were bombed, while the Russians kept saying that Kokoity did not obey them anymore. Neither me nor you nor anybody else in the world can believe in this.
I said that we were forced into the conflict, which was masterminded by Russians. We were simply trapped. Could the provocation have been left unanswered? Could the large-scale confrontation have been avoided? This is the most pressing issue for me.
I do not think I am disclosing a secret now. We, indeed, had discussions on the possible development of events and actions to be taken.
As for the discussions, of course they took place. In the recent past, we were operating in a constant wartime regime, and I do not think I am disclosing a secret now. We, indeed, had discussions on the possible development of events and actions to be taken -- what can and cannot be avoided. Naturally, we had a meeting with the president when signs of acute crisis were apparent in Tskhinvali, and I expressed my position there, advising the president to keep away from the provocation if even the slightest possibility allowed. I told him that the Russians were willing to drag us into war, and if we responded they would extend the scope and depth of hostilities.
I hold back from any preliminary assessment and thus state that everything should be investigated. Was it possible to avoid the provocation? This is the major issue I am concerned about.
RFE/RL: The government claims it was impossible.
Burjanadze: I do not know. I cannot accept their verbal response, as I have a lot of reasons not to do so.
RFE/RL: You favored the proposal to establish an investigation commission but questioned its format. What do you believe the most appropriate format to be?
Burjanadze: Its format should be adequate to the credible needs of the population. When the public is told that we have won the war, that we gained a victory and should rejoice, it is unbelievable! This is cynical and shameful! Because we have not won.
RFE/RL: One frequently hears the word "propaganda."
Burjanadze: Propaganda during a war is understandable. I can even understand the need to limit the degree of sharing public information to a certain extent. However, everything has its limits. One cannot claim that victory has been achieved when not only territories are lost but also when the perspective of the conflict resolution has at least been extended.
I was shocked when I heard the president publicly say that he had offered Russia to divide Abkhazia. I was the speaker of the parliament and had the right to know this if at all such negotiations or communication in writing existed. I learned about this from "Kommersant" first, but when I asked the president whether the report by the Russian newspaper was true, I was given a categorically negative response.
Even today, when I am not a government official anymore, I can by no means accept the fact that behind the back of the country's second [in line], negotiations are held on nearly dividing Abkhaz territory. It is natural that I very seriously demand a response on this issue. I wish to ask how is it possible that the second top government official has no information on the most crucial negotiations and whether even the president of the country has the right to talk to anybody -- or especially to communicate in writing any model of splitting the country without the will of me, you, and any other Georgian.
RFE/RL Caucasus Report
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