Georgia “triggered off the war” with heavy artillery attack on Tskhinvali in August, 2008, however, this attack was not an isolated event, but a culminating point of years of mounting tensions and all sides bear responsibility, Heidi Tagliavini, who led EU-funded fact-finding mission into causes of the war, said on April 28.
She recited key findings of the mission’s report, which was released last September, in an address to Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE). Her statement was followed by debates at the April 28 PACE session about the consequences of the August war.
In her speech before the Assembly, Tagliavini said that the report by Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG) was made public immediately after the release in order “to avoid misquotations and misinterpretations.”
She said that reactions to the report in the press and in public had been mainly “positive, or factual and neutral”.
“The conflicting parties have reacted in overwhelming majority in a moderate way; although we, unfortunately, could observe some rather selective reading – I mean each party presenting those parts of the report, which were to their liking,” Tagliavini said.
This approach continued to prevail during the debates at PACE session after Tagliavini’s address with speakers from the Russian delegation focusing on Georgia’s responsibility for “triggering off the war” and the Georgian delegation members – on Russia’s responsibility for developments leading up to the war and ethnic cleansing.
“Those who were involved in the conflict were usually focusing only on their own truth; they were hardly ever sufficiently prepared to look at a truth of the others,” Tagliavini said.
She underlined that her fact-finding mission – the first of this kind in the EU history – was not leading an investigation relevant to judiciary proceeding of any sort.
“It was a strictly fact-finding mission,” Tagliavini said. “This report should not be seen as a tribunal and it was not preparing any legal action in favor or against any side or anyone.”
When she moved to laying out the mission’s key findings, Tagliavini started with, as she put it, “the answer to the question, which in the past has been asked most frequently.”
“In the mission’s view, it was Georgia, which triggered off the war, when it attacked Tskhinvali with heavy artillery on the night of 7 to 8 of August, 2008,” she said.
“None of the explanations, given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack, landed valid explanation. In particular, to the best of the mission’s knowledge, there was no massive Russian military invasion underway, which had to be stopped by Georgian military forces shelling Tskhinvali.”
“It needs to be stressed, that the Georgian attack against Tskhinvali on the 7 to 8 of August, 2008 was by no means an isolated event. It was the culminating point of months and years of mounting tension, of armed incidents, and steadily deteriorating situation. All sides to the conflict bear responsibility for these evermore serious developments,” she said.
She said that although blame for triggering off the war lies on the Georgian side, Russia “too is to blame for a substantial number of violations of international law.”
“These include, even prior to the armed conflict, the mass conferral of Russian citizenship to a majority of the population living in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia. It also includes in terms of an additional violation of international law the military action by the Russian armed forces on Georgian territory far beyond the needs of a proportionate defense of Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali what come under Georgian attack. In addition, the Russian recognition of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states must be considered as being not valid in the context of international law and as violations of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Tagliavini said.
She said that claims by Moscow and Tskhinvali that Georgia was carrying out “the genocide against the South Ossetian population are not substantiated.”
“On the other side, there is a serious indication that ethnic cleansing did take place in many instances against ethnic Georgians in the villages and settlements in South Ossetia, as well as other violations of international humanitarian law, which must be attributed to all sides,” she said.
“Furthermore, there are serious question marks behind the attitude of the Russian armed forces, who would not or could not stop atrocities committed by armed groups or even individuals fighting on the South Ossetian side against the civilian population in those territories, which were controlled by the Russian armed forces.”
She reiterated her call for “abstaining from assigning an overall responsibility” only to one side alone.
Tagliavini also said that the international community also had its share of responsibility.
She also said that international conflict management “was not successful” partly because of “a gradual erosion” of previously negotiated agreements and disrespect of international commitments.
She also criticized “passive and non-innovative approach to the peace processes” by OSCE and UN – organizations, which were present in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively.
“When in early spring 2008 the international community eventually realized the seriousness of the situation and deployed intense high-level diplomacy with U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice, EU High Representative Javier Solana and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, presenting one diplomatic initiative after the other, it was too late and not enough to prevent forthcoming crisis,” Tagliavini said.
“The series of misperception, missed opportunities and mistakes on all sides accumulated to a point that the danger of explosions and violence became real,” she added.
After Tagliavini’s address, debates were held during which head of the Georgian delegation Petre Tsiskarishvili told the Assembly that presence of Russian forces and shelling of Georgian villages in the conflict zone prior to the attack of Tskhinvali by the Georgian forces was already “the start of the war.”
“The inquiry [by Tagliavini commission] has proved that the Russian forces in consent with their Ossetian proxies have deliberately embarked on the campaign of ethnic cleansing of Georgians during and after the war. Second crucial part of this report is the passportization of citizens living on Georgia’s territory [in Abkhazia and South Ossetia],” MP Tsiskarishvili, who is leader of ruling majority in the Georgian Parliament, said.
“And last but not the least, which is very important for us, is that Russian troops – it was established by this mission – were on the territory, on the Georgian soil by August the 7th. It’s another question, whether substantial or unsubstantial forces, but the conventional Russian forces as well as paramilitary elements were ready on the Georgian territory.”
The report by the fact-finding mission, notes about the presence of “some Russian forces” in South Ossetia, other than the Russian peacekeepers, prior to 2:30pm of August 8, when Russia says it made a decision on intervention.
“To me the facts that I have just described are already start of the war,” he added.
Another speaker from the Georgian delegation, a ruling party MP Akaki Minashvili said that if it was Georgia, which started the war, “how it comes that in two hours, about ten thousand Russian soldiers were on Georgian territory – strange.”
“If we are the starters of the war, how it comes that Russia blocked eight peace proposals offered by the Georgian side and one of them was offered by [then] German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier,” MP Minashvili said.
MP Tsiskarishvili said that Russia’s policy towards Georgia was making the current situation “a classic zero-sum game”.
“Georgia either surrenders and becomes Russia’s backyard, or Russia wants to see it destroyed completely,” he said and added that through democratic reforms and international support Georgia would prevail.
Head of the Russian delegation at PACE, Konstantin Kosachev, told the Assembly that such a notion of “zero-sum game” would not help to resolve the conflict. He also said that he agreed with Heidi Tagliavini’s remarks that there were no winners from this conflict.
Initially PACE was expected to pass a resolution – the fourth since October, 2008 – about the consequences of the August war, but the process was stalled because of disagreements over the drafts.
Two preliminary drafts of the resolution were prepared, which, as one PACE members put it, “significantly differed from each other”. One was prepared by co-rapporteur on the matter Hungarian MP Mátyás Eörsi and the second one by another co-rapporteur, British MP David Wilshire. The latter was strongly criticized by Georgia for having a meeting with South Ossetian representative in so called embassy of breakaway region in Moscow. The Georgian delegations said that Wilshire’s decision agree on a meeting at that venue was putting a reason to question his objectivity in drafting of the resolution.
During the debates, David Wilshire told the Assembly that “one thing we can usefully do is try not to get hung up on terminology, on status and on which building the meeting takes place.” “We want to focus on what is achievable,” he added.
In a response to Wilshire’s remarks, Georgian lawmaker Akaki Minashvili said it was probably easy to say “let’s leave emotions back” for those people who “live in London and travel to Moscow”, but it was not easy in Georgia’s case as Russian artillery “is standing 40 kilometers away from Tbilisi, from our families and citizens.”