Georgia started war with Russia, says EU

Georgia was blamed for starting the 2008 war with Russia, a new EU report says. But it also says Russia then invaded South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

By , Correspondent

MOSCOW – The long-awaited European Union-sponsored report on last year’s lightning summer war between Russia and Georgia has finally been released to the public.

The study digs deep into history and finds fault with both sides, which means that nobody is likely to be satisfied. While it provides solid answers to some of the conflict’s most troubling questions – such as, who started the fighting? – both sides are already spinning its findings to support their separate narratives

The report, prepared under the direction of Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini and now available online (click here for a PDF) makes clear that Georgia opened hostilities by mounting a “sustained artillery attack” on the capital of the Russian-protected breakaway statelet of South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7, followed by a full-scale invasion of the region.

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The investigators were unable to find any solid evidence to support Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili’s oft-repeated claim that he sent his forces into South Ossetia to interdict a Russian invasion that was already in progress.

Russian armored troops smashed into the territory the next day, the report says, and soon broadened out their counter-assault to include Georgia’s other separatist region, Abkhazia.

Some Georgian experts say they can’t accept the finding that Georgia opened hostilities.

“We have evidence that the Russians were already attacking, but the [Tagliavini] commission ignored it,” says Alexander Rondeli, president of the Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. “This study will have no effect on Georgia, because interpretations can be different. We know what happened, and we don’t need someone else to tell us.”

The five-day war killed at least 250 people and drove about 120,000 from their homes, many permanently. It ended with an EU-brokered cease-fire that required both sides to withdraw to prewar positions. Russian troops, who had driven deep inside Georgian territory, have yet to fully comply with the terms of that deal.

The study has infuriated many Russians by blaming Moscow for fanning the flames of ethnic tension for many years amid the tinder keg of post-Soviet Georgia, and setting the stage for war.

“I don’t understand what Russia can be ‘faulted’ for,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

“Why is it that Europeans can’t even recognize the obvious [that Georgia attacked first] without finding in it an opportunity to reproach Russia?” he says. “They’re just playing judge, handing out marks to everyone else.”

The study also debunks Russian claims that Georgian forces committed “genocide” against the Ossetian population during their brief assault on the tiny territory and accuses Russian-allied militias of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” during the Russian advance.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia not independent
It further rejects the legality of Russia’s subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

“Recognition of breakaway entities such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia by a third country is contrary to international law in terms of an unlawful interference in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the affected country, which is Georgia,” the report says.

Russia’s insistence that the two breakaway territories are now independent nations has deeply complicated efforts to broker a permanent peace settlement and led to an explosive dispute that could see Russia expelled from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in voting slated to take place Thursday.

The EU says that Russia must grant its observers the right to enter South Ossetia and Abkhazia to monitor cease-fire compliance. Moscow says they should apply directly to the governments of the rebel statelets for access.

“I am disappointed with this debate,” the head of the Russian parliamentary delegation, Konstantin Kosachev, told the daily Vremya Novostei on Wednesday.

“The Europeans are working with simple geopolitical concepts: they see little free Georgia beset by big, aggressive and totalitarian Russia. But this is wrong. Georgia is not democratic and Russia is not totalitarian."

Mr. Kosachev then underlined Russia's position on the disputed territories. “South Ossetia and Abkhazia exist, regardless of whether everyone likes this fact or not.”

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