The Georgian government released a statement late on November 17 in an attempt to counter some of the recent western media reports questioning Tbilisi’s assertions about the war’s start in August.
The English-language statement mainly addresses an article published by the New York Times earlier this month.
“Several controversial recent reports have questioned the validity of well-documented Georgian claims that Russia initiated the hostilities,” the statement reads. It says that ahead of the second round of Geneva talks on November 18, “it is now more necessary than ever to highlight independently confirmed accounts of Russia's military and political aggression in the days and months leading up to full-scale war on August 7, 2008.”
The statement says that it aimed at debunking “the inaccurate and incomplete accounts in several respected media outlets, and to underscore the need for a full-scale, unbiased investigation of the war and its causes.”
One of the key issues addressed in the New York Times article was whether or not the Georgian villages were shelled late on August 7 before the Georgian forces started shelling of Tskhinvali. A unilateral ceasefire was ordered by President Saakashvili at about 7pm on August 7. At 8:30pm on August 7 the Georgian Interior Ministry reported shelling of the Georgian village of Avnevi and later the Ministry also reported that the village of Prisi was also shelled at 10:15pm. According to the senior Georgian officials President Saakashvili ordered the military to suppress the South Ossetian firing positions at about 11:30pm.
The NY Times said it its article that according to the monitors, however, no shelling of Georgian villages could be heard in the hours before the Georgian bombardment. “At least two of the four villages that Georgia has since said were under fire were near the observers’ office in Tskhinvali, and the monitors there likely would have heard artillery fire nearby,” the newspaper said based on the OSCE observers’ accounts.
The Georgian government said in its statement on November 17 that this assertion contradicted an August 8 OSCE Spot Report. Spot reports were series of routine reports done by the OSCE observers, which were describing situation on the ground.
The Georgian government’s statement cites the August 8 spot report: “The temporary unilateral ceasefire ordered by President Saakashvili at around 19:00 hrs on 7 August was stable and also observed by the South Ossetian side for some hours until fire reportedly was exchanged again at around 22:00 hrs.”
The report, seen by Civil.Ge, then continues: “Shortly before midnight, the center of Tskhinvali came under heavy fire and shelling, presumably also from GRAD systems and artillery stationed outside the zone of conflict. The Mission’s Tskhinvali Field Office has also been hit and its three remaining international staff took shelter in the basement.”
In the initial version of the statement, which was released on November 17, the Georgian government claimed those three OSCE monitors who were in Tskhinvali at that time could not have heard mortar shelling against the Georgian villages in question – Avnevi, Kurta, and Prisi – “since these towns are located more than 10 kilometers away.” While the villages of Avnevi and Kurta are relatively far from Tskhinvali, the village of Prisi, according to other OSCE spot reports, is “about 2km east of Tskhinvali.”
In the modified version of the statement, which was posted on the government’s website later on November 18, this section involving distance of the villages from Tskhinvali was omitted.
Instead, the modified statement reads: “Due to the distance and the mountainous terrain, the three OSCE monitors who were in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali during that time would have been unable to hear mortar shelling against the Georgian villages in question.”
The Georgian government’s statement also says citing OSCE officials' recent statements that with only three monitors in the area, the organization did not have the necessary manpower to verify or dismiss accusations of the ceasefire violations.
Finnish Foreign Minister, Alexander Stubb, who holds the OSCE’s rotating chairmanship said at a news conference in Moscow on November 12 that the small contingent of OSCE monitors in Tskhinvali was not in a position to determine how the war started.
“It's not my job to make the judgment on who started the war, or how it actually started,” RFE/RL reported quoting Stubb. “The OSCE isn't an intelligence service. Our instruments are, unfortunately, very limited.”
The NY Times also reported citing accounts by OSCE monitors that they observed at 3pm on August 7 deployment of the Georgian artillery and rocket launchers in the vicinity of the breakaway region.
The Georgian government said in the statement that this movement of troops and weapons was made in response to two earlier events. In particular, the statement reads: “At 2:00 pm on Aug. 7, two Georgian peacekeepers and eight civilians were killed after a checkpoint in Avnevi was shelled from Khetagurovo [the South Ossetian-controlled village]. The OSCE has confirmed the exchange of fire in this area, and intercepted phone calls by separatist militia confirming the Georgian fatalities. At 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 7, Georgian officials received intelligence that Russian regular army forces had entered Georgian territory and that other troops had been put on high alert.”
The Georgian government’s statement also responds to an editorial piece, which appeared in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune (both owned by the New York Times Company) on November 11, which says: “The inescapable conclusion is that Saakashvili started the war and lied about it.”
“Such assertions portray an incomplete version of the story and omit critical context that includes years of political and military provocations,” the Georgian government said.
These provocations, it said, included “the scale of destruction caused by Russian shelling; mass evacuations of civilians from South Ossetia beginning on Aug. 2; military maneuvers and large deployments of Russian troops to the Georgian border; Russian violations of Georgian airspace and bombings of Georgian territory; and Russian construction of large military bases in Tskhinvali and Java.”
Meanwhile, in the Georgian Parliament some lawmakers have expressed concern over, as they put it, signs of “losing information war.”
“Georgia was obviously had an upper hand over the Russian Federation in the information war during [the August war] and for a certain period of time after those events. But, this trend has actually changed within past two” MP Giorgi Targamadze, the leader of parliamentary minority, said at the parliamentary session on November 18.
He called on the Georgian Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council and the President’s administration to intensify efforts “for neutralizing the anti-Georgian propaganda.” MP Targamadze also added that Georgia “should not let Russia to portray itself in the European media as an innocent wolf.”