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August 7 Or 8? Why The Date Georgia Marks Its 2008 War With Russia Is So Controversial

Georgian soldiers run past a building hit by a Russian air strike in Gori on August 9, 2008.
Georgian soldiers run past a building hit by a Russian air strike in Gori on August 9, 2008.

TBILISI -- Fifteen years after Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, there is little Georgians can agree on about how to remember it -- including on which day it started.

Many, including the Georgian government, will commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of war on August 8. Opposition figures and much of the international community, meanwhile, are marking it a day earlier, on August 7.

The increasingly rigid schism about the anniversary is a corollary of the single question that has come to dominate Georgia's discourse about the 2008 war: Who started it?

The question does not lend itself to a short answer. The full-scale war erupted after days of escalating skirmishes in the region and months of heightened tensions over the Russian-backed breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It emerged from years of political estrangement between the Georgians and Ossetians and historical grievances that date back centuries.

The short war, which lasted for around five days, killed more than 200 soldiers and more than 300 civilians and displaced thousands. Following the war, Russia formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and substantially expanded its military footprint in both territories.

A column of Russian armored vehicles is seen on its way to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on August 9, 2008.
A column of Russian armored vehicles is seen on its way to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on August 9, 2008.

Who you believe "started" the war depends to a large degree on how far back in history you choose to go.

It was in the early hours of August 8, 2008, when Georgian forces heavily shelled the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russia, which was the security guarantor for the separatist South Ossetian state -- which had broken away from Georgia in another war in the early 1990s -- responded with overwhelming force, and in the next few days not only pushed Georgian forces out of South Ossetia but struck and invaded Georgia proper.

This, according to many accounts, is how the war started. A European Union report produced a year later declared that the shelling of Tskhinvali "marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia," though it blamed Russia as well for its provocative actions in the run-up to the war.

Some Georgians, however, point to what they say was the real start of the conflict: an alleged large-scale movement of Russian forces into South Ossetia via the Roki Tunnel, which they argue was the precursor to a long-planned invasion of Georgia.

The supposed Russian troop movement has never been proved, and the writers of the EU report cautiously said that they were "not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated" the reports of a significant August 7 Russian advance.

Despite that assessment, the August 7 narrative was an ex post facto justification by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, argues Paata Zakareishvili, a longtime peace activist and a former state minister for reconciliation and civic equality.

"For a year [after the war], absolutely no one was talking about August 7," Zakareishvili told RFE/RL. But in anticipation of the EU report's release in 2009, Zakareishvili said that Saakashvili developed the "myth, this legend" of a large-scale Russian invasion before Georgia's attack. "The idea that the war started on the 7th is absurd. It was invented by Saakashvili for his political agenda," he said.

When the Georgian Dream party, led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, began its quest in 2011 to topple Saakashvili and his United National Movement (ENM) party, part of its campaign narrative was that Saakashvili had recklessly started the war and brought on the devastating Russian invasion.

In a 2011 press conference ahead of parliamentary elections, Ivanishvili said that "Georgia started" the war, citing the EU report as evidence.

The dueling anniversaries began soon after. When Georgian Dream won the elections in 2012, ending the rule of Saakashvili's ENM, and Ivanishvili became prime minister, he marked the 2012 anniversary of the war on August 8. Saakashvili, who was then still president, commemorated it a day earlier.

By November 2013, Saakashvili had also lost the presidency, and the dominance of Georgian Dream -- and August 8 -- began. A pillar of Georgian Dream's political narrative is that the previous leadership had brought war to the country, and they would not.

But among anti-Georgian Dream circles, who tend to be political allies of Saakashvili, resistance to the later date began to mount.

"There is some confusion about the date of the start of the August war of 2008," wrote David Batashvili, an analyst at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, in a 2018 article. "People tend to name August 7 and August 8 interchangeably, as if there were no difference between the two dates." In fact, Batashvili wrote, the August 8 date was based on a "Russian lie" that Moscow only attacked in response to Georgia's shelling of Tskhinvali. "For some Georgians to follow Moscow in mentioning August 8 as the day the war started is an unbelievably foolish carelessness."

The August 7 narrative blaming Russia for the start of the war began to take root. In 2020, then-Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia broke with Georgian Dream's tradition and marked the anniversary on August 7. In President Salome Zurabishvili's first year in office, in 2019, she marked the anniversary on August 8. But the next year she switched after drawing controversy during her 2018 election campaign for supporting the idea that Georgia had started the fighting.

The United States switched, as well. While earlier commemoration statements had been issued on August 8, since 2020, Washington has marked the anniversary on August 7. Asked to explain the shift, a spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi offered a statement: "The embassy, the people of Georgia, and the international community recognize August 7 as the beginning of Russia's full-scale military aggression against Georgia." (The European Union, for its part, has for years marked the August 7 date.)

Controversy over the dates has only continued to grow, as Georgia's political divisions have intensified. During last year's commemoration, Georgian Dream Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili was asked why he marked the anniversary on the 8th rather than the 7th. "The date August 8 has never been a subject for discussion," he responded. "In general, it's embarrassing that the family members of our hero soldiers are standing here and we're talking about dates." He added that Saakashvili's "foolish policy, his uncalculated, provocatory steps" resulted in the former leadership "not being able to avert this tragic war."

The spats over who started it mean there is less room for real discussions about what happened in the war and how to think about the breakaway territories now, says Anna Dziapshipa, a Tbilisi-based filmmaker and peace activist. "This shallow topic of the dates really changes how we talk about the problem and what we talk about in the 2008 war," she told RFE/RL. "It doesn't allow any space to reflect and understand the framework and reasons" for Georgia's conflicts. As a result, the memory of the war "has become very flat," she said.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili takes part in a ceremony in Tbilisi on August 8, 2013, marking the fifth anniversary of the war with Russia.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili takes part in a ceremony in Tbilisi on August 8, 2013, marking the fifth anniversary of the war with Russia.

Politics in Georgia is incredibly polarized, so much so that the European Union has said the country's leaders must address the issue with more cross-party cooperation for Georgia to become a candidate for EU membership. "The [2008] war has become one of the main pillars of this polarization blame game," said Vano Abramashvili, an analyst and head of the Peace Program at the Tbilisi-based NGO Caucasian House.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has further polarized the legacy of 2008. The opposition and other anti-Georgian Dream organizations have sought to portray Georgia's conflict as a part of a larger phenomenon of Russian aggression that includes its war against Ukraine.

The Shame Movement, a pro-Western youth-oriented activist group, has been buying ads on Instagram promoting August 7 as the real war anniversary. "Even after 15 years since the August war, Russian propaganda continues to push the narrative that the war began on August 8, intending to shift blame onto Georgia," the group wrote in one such post. "However, the reality is that Russia had been preparing for this war for years.... The official start of the war occurred on August 7, when the Russian Army invaded the territory controlled by the central government of Georgia. It is essential not to spread Russian propaganda and instead seek accurate information on the events."

"The Russia-Ukraine war is so black and white, and people have this urge to transfer this black and whiteness to our conflict here," Dziapshipa said. That means that, increasingly, Georgia's conflicts are seen solely in Georgian-Russian terms with the voices and agency of Abkhazians and Ossetians rarely heard or considered, activists like Dziapshipa and Zakareishvili say.

Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)
Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)

Rhetoric from ruling Georgian Dream leaders, too, has sharpened. They have recently begun to give voice to complaints -- once taboo among mainstream Georgians -- that the West did not sufficiently support Georgia in 2008.

"We had a war in 2008, you remember that well, but do you remember anyone who imposed sanctions against Russia? No one in the world had a correct, adequate reaction. So, my question is: Where is the logic? Our war was not a war, but the war in Ukraine is a war?" Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said during a May appearance in Qatar.

"Western countries imposed a de facto arms embargo on Georgia immediately after the 2008 war and soon declared the ill-fated 'reset' [in relations] with Russia," wrote parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili in a recent opinion piece for the website. "In subsequent years, many of these countries increased foreign trade with Moscow to unprecedented levels and wrapped some major economies into a Russian energy straitjacket."

The Ukraine war has also given Georgian Dream leaders new ammunition for their argument that they are better than the ENM -- which remains Georgia's largest opposition party -- at keeping Georgia out of a war. "If Saakashvili were in power today, they would make a second Mariupol happen here, that was the intention," Gharibashvili said in April 2022, referring to the Ukrainian city that has been devastated by Russia's invasion.

To many Georgians, government rhetoric has occasionally veered into victim-blaming when it contrasts its success in not getting invaded by Russia to Kyiv's failure to prevent an attack.

"The Georgian Dream government is missing the opportunity to take advantage of the war in Ukraine, while the whole world sees that Russia is the aggressor," Zakareishvili said. "Instead, they are constantly blaming the ENM for being the cause of the start of the war."

The discussion of dates and blame means that more important questions are not being asked, Zakareishvili says. "It's not important who started the war," he said. "It's important that the war happened and how was it possible to avoid it. And this is what we need to talk about with the Abkhazians and the Ossetians, as soon as the war in Ukraine is over."

Abramishvili, the analyst, agrees. "To me, who shot first is not the important question," he said. "My question is: 'What did my government do?'"

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