Danger Recedes of New Conflict in the South Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 180

Swiss Diplomat Heidi Tagliavini

This week in an unusual demonstration of solidarity, the authorities in Tbilisi and Moscow jointly welcomed the E.U.-sponsored report on the origins of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, compiled by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. Each side praised the 1000-page report as "balanced" and concluded that it vindicated them. Moscow implied that it had named Georgia as the "aggressor," while Tbilisi claimed the opposite (RIA Novosti, September 30).

A visibly happy Russian Permanent Representative to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov announced that though the word "aggression" was not used in the report, it blamed Georgia for starting the hostilities. Chizhov lauded the professional qualities of Tagliavini. The flamboyant Russian permanent representative to NATO Dmitry Rogozin declared: "Some Western politicians will now be forced to apologize for criticizing Russia." The Russian foreign ministry announced that not only had the report proved "Georgian aggression against South Ossetia," but it also pointed out the nations that armed and trained the Georgian military [the U.S., Israel, Ukraine and the Czech Republic]. The Russian foreign ministry also reproached the report for falsely accusing Russia of a "disproportionate use of force" (RIA Novosti, September 30).

Eduard Kokoyty, the President of the breakaway South Ossetia told Russian television that he applauded the E.U. report’s conclusion that the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "is an international criminal who committed an aggression and genocide against the Ossetian people." Comments from Tbilisi were more guarded: Georgian officials fully agreed with the reports’ factual findings, while disagreeing with some of its conclusions (Interfax, September 30).

Apparently, most Russian officials did not really read the text. The publication of the E.U. report was preceded by leaks of its contents that seemed favorable for Russia. Georgia would be damned for causing the war, while Russia reproached for the disproportionate use of force (Der Spiegel, September 21). The reality turned out different: the report damned Russia.

The E.U. report pointed out the fact that "the shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces during the night of August 7 to 8, 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." The main Russian force crossed the international border and initiated a full-scale invasion after the Georgian forces launched an offensive against South Ossetian separatist forces. The report did not substantiate fully Georgian claims that the Russian invasion preceded the attack on Tskhinvali, though evidence was found "that regular Russian troops as well as volunteers and mercenaries had entered South Ossetia before the start of the conflict on August 7" (www.ceiig.ch, September 30).

Equally, "the report shows that any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus solely on the artillery attack on Tskhinvali on the night of August 7 to 8 and on what then developed into the questionable Georgian offensive in South Ossetia and the Russian military action." The E.U. report states: "It has to consider, too, the impact of a great power’s coercive politics and diplomacy against a small and insubordinate neighbor." The report accuses Russia of a "creeping annexation" of Georgian territory before the 2008 war. It accuses Russia of a disproportionate use of force, invading and bombing outside the territory of South Ossetia, illegally initiating a conflict in Abkhazia, deliberately lying about a nonexistent "genocide" of Ossetians, and using false pretexts to invade Georgia. The report declares illegal and invalid the recognition by Moscow of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the continued presence of Russian forces on their territory, as well as the distribution of Russian passports in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 2002.

The report also condemns the expulsion by Russia in 2009 of U.N. and OSCE observers from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the refusal to allow in E.U. observers. It accuses Russian-led Ossetian irregular forces of mass ethnic cleansing of Georgian civilians, mass destruction of civilian property, marauding and rape. It accuses Russian forces of preventing the free return of Georgian refugees to their homes. The report insists that crimes against humanity in Georgia must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Moreover, it alleges that Russia has pursued a destabilizing foreign policy to assert: "A privileged spheres of interest, in particular with regard to neighboring countries, set to deprive smaller states of their freedom of choice and to limit their sovereignty" (www.ceiig.ch, September 30).

The E.U. report concludes that the situation has not improved since August 2008, and that a "substantial number of dangerous incidents" have happened and "the risk of a new confrontation remains serious." A more concerted international effort is needed to reinforce the fragile ceasefire and promote a political solution.

This summer the situation in Georgia hovered around a possible renewed full-scale war, but now the risk is minimal. Abnormally early heavy snowfalls in the Caucasus have already virtually cut off South Ossetia from Russia by snow-drifts (RIA Novosti, September 28). Essential supplies for the reconstruction of South Ossetia are not being delivered. It will be a harsh winter for the occupying Russian soldiers and the remaining civilian population of South Ossetia, while the border with Georgia is closed and access to Russia impeded until spring 2010. Any major Russian military action is virtually impossible until next April, when the threat of a new war will reappear, if no diplomatic progress is made in the meantime. Profound differences continue to separate Russia, Georgia and the West, making progress difficult.