Saakashvili Testifies Before War Commission
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 28 Nov.'08 / 22:05

President Saakashvili testified before the parliamentary commission studying the August war on November 28.

He told the commission that his decision on August 7 to launch a military operation was “inevitable” because the Russian troops were already advancing into breakaway South Ossetia and because the Georgian-controlled villages inside the breakaway region were under heavy shelling.

Saakashvili said that the August war to a certain extend had “complicated” restoration of the Georgia’s territorial integrity, but on the other hand, he said, it made the process even “easier” because the war demonstrated that Russia was not at all “peacekeeper” but “an aggressor.”

“Today everyone recognizes that Russians are occupiers and whatever inconvenient this truth might be for the world, that is the fact. This is a new reality for Georgia,” he said and also added that Georgia was neither loser nor winner in this war, because the struggle was still ongoing.

He strongly denied allegations voiced by Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, and said it was “a mistake” to appoint him on that post.

Foreign diplomats accredited in Tbilisi were invited by the Georgian authorities to attend the hearings.

Below are key points of the hearing, which last for up to five hours:

  • MP Paata Davitaia, the commission chairman told the President in the beginning of the hearings: Mr. President you know that the Russian aggression did not start in August, it started long before that; why Georgia failed to avert the conflict?
  • Saakashvili responded: Before answering to your questions, I want to say that setting up of this commission was a historic event;
  • The aggression is ongoing… I am telling this to those foreigners as well who want to forget what has happened here; the Russian troops are still standing about 30 km away from Tbilisi;
  • Democracy was our response to this aggression; the government was instructed to cooperate with the commission; you have listened to many officials… you have listened to many lies and many truths;
  • The major question asked both within and outside Georgia is whether Tbilisi carried out military actions in early August with an aim to regain control over Tskhinvali and other areas which were not under our control; you know that this question is in the center of debates; Russia is spending huge amount of money for information campaign to discredit Georgia…; this campaign has achieved certain results;
  • In fact this question is an attempt to distract attention from major issues:
  • I want to tell in respect of this question – did we carried out military actions in the begiing of August with an aim to regain control over Tskhinvali and those areas which were not under our control in South Ossetia? – I was saying it openly previously and I state it now, that yes we decided to carry out military actions in the Tskhinvali region; it was a difficult decision, which would have been taken by any responsible democratic government to protect the security of its citizens;
  • This decision was unavoidable for two reasons; we have learnt that thousands of Russian soldiers and military hardware was on the border and we have incontrovertible evidence that these troops started moving inside Georgia;
  • The Georgian-controlled villages were under heavy shelling;
  • In these conditions, question should not be whether Georgia carried out military operation; there is no need to ask this question, because yes we did that;
  • The question is the government of which country would have acted otherwise in those conditions;
  • This is a territory of sovereign Georgia;
  • It is impossible to intrude into own territory; we fought for the protection of our country;
  • Key is the following questions: was it Georgia or Russia, which carried out military operation on a sovereign country’s territory? Was it Georgia or Russia which pulled out from the conventional arms treaty? Which country crossed the border with hundreds of tanks? Which country distributed illegally passports [in breakaway regions]? Which country refused to accept the German Foreign Minister’s peace initiatives? Who was claiming that 2,000 civilians were killed in Tskhinvali, the allegation, which was denied even by the Russian authorities later? Which country refused to allow EU monitors in the conflict areas?
  • These are real questions, which need to be answered;
  • In February, 2008 my meeting with Putin was difficult, because Putin told us openly: we will have bilateral ties with Georgia, we may think about allowing you to export your wines to Russia, but as far as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are concerned, we will respond in this regard to the west and to NATO and our response in this regard will be a reaction to Kosovo; It was very cynical statement by Putin; when we came out from that meeting, I asked Davit Bakradze [now the Parliamentary Chairman], who also attended that meeting, what was his impression; Bakradze responded to me: Putin seems to be threatening with war; that was my impression as well;
  • Then I met with Medvedev and he told us that he wanted to improve relations between the two countries; I was somewhat optimistic after that meeting; we then sent him a letter with new proposals [over Abkhaz conflict resolution]; but their response on this letter was negative;
  • I tried to call President Medvedev on August 6, but they refused to arrange the conversation;
  • The commission chairman then asked if he though that his “aggressive rhetoric” against Russia contributed to Moscow’s unwillingness to normalize ties with Tbilisi; the chairman asked Saakashvili about his “Liliputin” remarks -  a mocking reference to Putin's diminutive height. 
  • Saakashvili responded: Have you ever personally heard from me saying Liliputin? I have never, neither privately nor publicly said that; This is a myth promoted by those people who do not want to see real problems in Russian-Georgian relations;
  • We were telling our western partners: if there is massive targeting of our civilians, that would have been a red line for us; we were requesting them: please talk with Russia; we were telling everyone that situation was very tense; unfortunately this international involvement was too late; turning a blind eye by some of our partners was a bad signal for some people in the Kremlin and that was also one of the factors of what has happened in August;
  • Everything that was going on before August did not become a source of an appropriate [international] reaction, unfortunately;
  • Our goal was to avert a large-scale confrontation – that was our immediate goal; a long-term goal was restoration of our territorial integrity, including under the possible well-disposed neutrality;
  • Our reaction could have really been late and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told you about it yesterday; but we were double-checking those information which were coming from various sources [about the Russian military convoys entering into Georgia];
  • Then he was asked by a commission member from the Christian-Democratic Party: Mr. President on the one hand you and other officials, that testified before the commission previously, are saying that situation was getting worse, but on the other hand all the officials are saying that they did not expected Russia’s full-scale military intervention;
  • Saakashvili responded: I want to be self-critical about it, because we did not fully believe that such thing was possible; even western leaders did not believe that such thing could have happened;
  • But these provocations were reoccurring for years already; usually fire was opened in our direction, we were then returning fire and the situation was then getting calmer – that was usual scenario happing year after year; so when this provocation started in August we though it could have calmed down after certain period of time;
  • I canceled my planned visit to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games [in the evening of August 7], where all world leaders were gathered; I wanted to go there to meet them;
  • Timing chosen by Russia for the aggression was perfect; it is already snowing in the Caucasian mountings in the late September; August is a perfect time for conducting air strikes; weather was perfect for warfare in August; Russia has always staging its provocations in August; by the way Russia started war in Chechnya in August;
  • Most of the world leaders are on a holiday in August and U.S. President Bush was in Beijing this August; so it was a perfect time for huge power for its dark deeds; but at the same time we had this type of situation in previous years as well;
  • The decision to do something with Georgia, I think was taken by Moscow sometime in 2001 and the decision to carry out military operation against Georgia, I think, was taken by Moscow after Kosovo and ahead of the NATO Bucharest Summit;
  • Saakashvili was asked why Georgia did not formally scrapped the Russian peacekeeping operation; the President responded that such a move would have been perceived by the western partners as a provocative act by Georgia; we have been discussing this issue with our western partners, raising the issue for replacement of the Russian peacekeepers with international forces; there was some progress in this regard and one of the factors of launch of military actions by Russia could have been that progress as well;
  • I think it was a correct tacit that we were following fully our commitments undertaken under the agreements [in frames of decade old peacekeeping and negotiating formats];
  • Saakashvili was asked with whom the Georgian authorities consulted internationally before taking decision to launch military operation;
  • Saakashvili responded: Decision was taken by us on our own and we were not taking any permission from anyone;
  • The first person with whom I tried to contact was President Medvedev; the second person we tried to contact was the Russian Foreign Ministry’s special envoy Yuri Popov [who was in Georgia at that time]; but they [Russians] refused to have contacts with us;
  • In the evening on August 7 I called the Polish and Lithuanian Presidents, as well as NATO Secretary General; as far as I know Foreign Minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, was in touch with the officials from the U.S. Department of State;
  • It took time for our partners to figure out what was going on; but time was very precious for us;
  • On August 8 after a phone conversation between Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Lavrov, I was told by the U.S. side that the Russians had said their goal was ‘to totally destroy Georgia’;
  • But eventually active involvement of the international community diminished Russia’s room for maneuvering;
  • We are facing a propaganda machine of the authoritarian country [referring to Russia]; they have tradition of Soviet-old propaganda machine; even during the Holodomor [1930s Great Famine in Ukraine] that machine was working; even the New York Times at that time was saying that it was not a hunger at all [the New York Times published in early November an article questing the Georgian version of events on the war’s start];
  • Georgians carried out a late-night attack on sleeping town of Tskhinvali and Russians intervened to save South Ossetians from these barbarous Georgians – this is a typical [Nazi propaganda minister Joseph] Goebbels’ propaganda style;
  • Starting from 2004 Tskhinvali was no longer an ordinary town; Russia decided at that time to turn Tskhinvali into its military base; Russians distributed firearms among almost all the male population of the town;
  • Tskhinvali was well-protected; civilians were evacuated from the town at that time and it was in fact a military base; almost entire civilian population was evacuated in early days of August; 
  • I ordered the chief of army to stop Russian military convoy; to suppress the firing positions and to protect civilians while implementing these goals;
  • Our goal was not to capture Tskhinvali; our goal was to save people in Tskhinvali and in the Georgian-controlled villages;
  • It is not right to divide Tskhinvali from other settlements in the region; concentration of civilians was much higher in the [Georgian-controlled] villages, than in Tskhinvali; it was one entire war theater; our army was instructed to protect civilians;
  • It was not possible to evacuate civilians from the Georgian enclaves without suppressing firing positions in and around Tskhinvali;
  • Number of victims would have been much higher if not our army; we would have new Srebrenica;
  • The statement [about launch of restoring constitutional order] by [MoD senior official] Mamuka Kurashvili was total foolishness; he was not authorized to make that statement; Kurashvili apparently aimed at showing off himself by making that statement; this term ‘restoration of constitutional order’ is a Russian-style expression, which was used in Chechnya; we are not using that type of expressions; 
  • We are committed to resolve conflicts peacefully; but as the August events showed we should be ready to fight for our country if it is needed;
  • The commission chairman told President Saakashvili: the Russian news agencies are already reporting that as if during your ongoing testimony you have admitted that Georgia started the war;
  • Saakashvili responded: We have admitted that we did not surrender to the enemy and we have admitted that we resisted the enemy; the Georgian authorities have decided to carry out military operation to resist the Russia’s full-scale attack on the Georgian population; we took that decision and this decision – although it was very difficult – was the one, which would have been taken by any democratically elected government to protect its population;
  • Then President Saakashvili requested the commission members to take a ten-minute break;
  • After the session resumed, Saakashvili continued: the Georgian army was instructed not to engage with the Russian peacekeepers; but it was almost impossible to distinguish between peacekeepers and militias, because they were acting as one;
  • I confirm that in those days the Russian peacekeepers’ positions were used to launch attacks [against the Georgian villages]; we have warned for many times the Russian peacekeepers against it; 
  • In general I am satisfied with the Georgian army; our army fought heroically and stopped the advance of the Russian army before the international community actively intervened;
  • 95% of combat capable army of the Russia Federation was fighting against Georgia;
  • You know there are some allegations that Georgia started and then Russia reacted… but months are needed to mobilize and to deploy such number of troops [he was suggesting that Russia was in advance prepared for the war and it was not a reaction to the Georgian moves];
  • Georgia is aspiring towards the alliances, where problems are resolved peacefully;
  • But of course I am not satisfied with everything [in the army and in the reserve troops]; you know that the staff of the Georgian armed forces has been reshuffled; and Zaza Gogava [former chief of army staff and now chief of border police] himself was not satisfied with everything;
  • He then said that Georgia was implementing infrastructure rehabilitation projects in the Tbilisi-controlled areas of South Ossetia and in upper Kodori Gorge; he said: Why would we have carried out those works if we were planning the war?
  • Senior Russian officials were visiting Yerevan during the war in Georgia trying to convince Armenia to help them in stirring up tensions in Samtskhe-Javakheti region [populated by a large group of ethnic Armenian population]; but Russians have failed to do that;
  • Saakashvili was then asked to specify his earlier remarks at the hearings, when he said that Georgia could have acted more promptly, before August 7; Saakashvili responded: From the military point of view we could have acted more promptly and before [late August 7], but even today it is difficult for us to confirm to the international community that we were acting in response to the Russian aggression and you can imagine how Russia would have justified its aggression if we acted preemptively.
  • When asked whether he though Georgia was defeated or not, Saakashvili responded: Defeat and victory are assessed after the end of a battle – Georgia’s struggle is not yet over, our struggle continues; we have saved the most important thing – the statehood; overthrow of the Georgian government, total control of the entire Georgian terriotry, pipelines and destruction of the Georgian army were Russia’s goals and these goals have not been accomplished; but it will be impossible to talk about a serious success unless Georgia’s territories remain under occupation;
  • When asked whether the August war delayed or not restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity, Saakashvili responded: This issue is not as simple; if previously Russia was acting as a mediator, today everyone recognizes that Russians are occupiers and whatever inconvenient this truth might be for the world, that is the fact. This is a new reality for Georgia; if the Georgian statehood is survived we will restore our territorial integrity; that is why on the one hand it [restoration of the Georgian territorial integrity] became more complicated, but on the other hand it became easier, because everything became clearer and obvious now;
  • The Sarkozy agreement was not ideal;
  • I have signed ceasefire agreement, which envisages pulling back troops back to the lines they held prior to August 7; this is the first stage and the next stage is to totally get rid of them [the Russian troops] from here;
  • He was asked about the statement made by Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, about Saakashvili allegedly saying that he would have relocated the capital of Georgia from Tbilisi to Sokhumi in August, 2008. While answering this question, Saakashvili said, that Tbilisi had been offering Abkhazia to distribute powers and an issue of announcing Sokhumi “as a federal center” could have been an issue for negotiations. He also said that it was not an issue “for open discussions.”
  • When asked why Erosi Kitsmarishvili was appointed as Georgia’s ambassador to Russia, Saakashvili responded: We all make mistakes; he was appointed under the recommendation of the Foreign Ministry;
  • When a commission member MP Levan Vepkhvadze of the Christian-Democratic Party asked Saakashvili about Kitsmarishvili’s remarks that during the first meeting between the Georgian President and then Russian President Putin in 2004, Putin said that Russia was ready to start discussions over South Ossetia, but not about Abkhazia, Saakashvili responded: You quote that person [Kitsmarishvili] as if he is a classic literature author; I do not know where that person has read about it, maybe in Alia or Asaval-Dasavali [the Georgian tabloid newspapers];
  • Responding to Kitsmarishvili's other allegation that some of the senior Georgian officials were wrongly perceived that U.S. “gave a green light” to Tbilisi to launch the military operation, Saakashvili said: We did not ask for a green light from anyone. We were telling our friends that Russia was conducting these provocations, which were completely out of any sort of framework;
  • In June I have sent a letter to Medvedev telling that we were ready to consider Russia's economic interests here and to legalize Russisan peacekeepers in Abkhazia, but beyond the Kodori river [outside the Gali and Ochamchire districts], we were offering setting up of a joint administration and free economic zones in [Gali and Ochamchire]; it was not at all Abkhazia's carve-up deal; this proposal would have delayed the final resolution of the conflict, but it would helped us to return part of our displaced person [in Gali and Ochamchire districts]; but even this proposal was rejected by Russia; I have not made that letter public at that time, because we were in the process of negotiations; but the information about that letter was leaked in the Russian press and I was very much criticized here in Georgia about offering such a proposal to Russia;
  • We are in talks with Russia in frames of the Geneva process; but do not ask me to agree on Russia having one embassy in Tbilisi [Russia and Georgia cut diplomatic ties after the war] and at the same time embassies in Tskhinvali and Sokhumi [Russia has recently appointed its ambassadors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia];
  • We should continue our Euro-Atlantic integration;
  • When asked if he thought whether the war hindered Georgia’s NATO integration, Saakashvili responded: one of the strategic goals of Russia’s aggression was to undermine Georgia’s NATO integration; but all the members of NATO, even the most skeptical members, including Germany, are saying that Georgia will become NATO member despite the war;
  • He also said on the matter that the most important was to have a membership mechanisms and it was not important whether it would be a Membership Action Plan or something else
  • With the deployment of the EU monitors and with the Russian economic crisis, resumption of hostilities is now less likely than it was two months ago; but threat still persists and we should continue search for our security guarantees;
  • The commission chairman told the President that the commission was also receiving questions from citizens through its website and one of the questions, he said, was about an incident when on August 11 in Gori he ran for cover after hearing a sound of an aircraft. Saakashvili responded: We were bombed in Gori. My bodyguard acted not in standard manner. Security is trained to save those whom they are protecting from bullets and when this Russian jet flew over us on a very low altitude and dropped several bombs in surrounding areas [no bombing of nearby areas was reported neither at that time nor afterwards and no sound of explosions was heard at the footage showing the incident], my bodyguards thought it was an attack and fifteen men [from the security service] jumped on my head – and you may remember my confused face images of which were showed on world TVs; it was totally inappropriate reaction of my security guards, because fifteen bodyguards on your head will not help you if a 500-kg bomb is dropped on you;
  • Saakashvili then also addressed a separate episode, which also became a source of mockery, when he was caught by a camera chewing his neck tie; the footage was aired by BBC World. Saakashvili said: one can even eat a neck tie when one is concerned; 
  • It was a five-hour test for me [referring to the commission hearings]; I was preparing for these hearings; questions were not easy, but that’s how it should be.

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