Georgia's Murky Motives Saakashvili under Pressure from EU Probe
An EU enquiry investigating the events of last summer's conflict between Russia and Georgia is shining an unfavorable light on Mikheil Saakashvili. A secret document may prove that the Georgian president had planned a war of aggression in South Ossetia.
Mamuka Kurashvili, the commander of the Georgian peacekeeping forces that had been stationed in South Ossetia before last summer's war, is no expert on the fine points of international law. But when the stout general, wearing a uniform festooned with medals, appeared before the television cameras of his native Georgia on Aug. 7, 2008, he proved to be surprisingly well-versed in the legal justification for the attack on the province, which had declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Georgia, Kurashvili told the press, had decided "to reestablish constitutional order in the entire region." The general's words came at the beginning of a five-day war between Russia and Georgia, which quickly escalated into the most dangerous confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War. The conflict suddenly demonstrated to Europeans that an armed conflict with Russia on their own continent was no longer inconceivable.
According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the television appearance by General Kurashvili plays a key role in the investigation. His remarks indicate that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was not repelling "Russian aggression," as he continues to claim to this day, but was planning a war of aggression.
This is because Kurashvili may have been quoting directly from Order No. 2 from Aug. 7, a Georgian document that could shed light on the question of who started the war. When the commission questioned the Russian deputy head of the general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, in Moscow, he quoted from the very same Georgian order. According to Nogovitsyn, the document also contained the phrase "reestablishment of constitutional order." If the order, which Russian intelligence intercepted, is authentic, it would prove that Saakashvili lied.
The Georgian government still refuses to show the controversial decree to the commission. Officials in Tbilisi argue that they cannot do this because the document is a state secret.
The EU investigators are particularly interested in the political leadership's possibly treacherous choice of words. "Most of South Ossetia's territory is liberated," Saakashvili, who is a trained lawyer, announced at 12:20 p.m. on Aug. 8, blaming "separatist rebels" -- South Ossetian militias -- for the fighting.
But four days after the war began, when the Russian military had already driven the Georgian army out of South Ossetia and was only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili made the surprise claim that he had learned at 10 p.m. on Aug. 7 that the Russians planned to send 150 tanks through the Roki tunnel, which connects South Ossetia and North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.
At that point, he claimed, he had "no other choice." Suddenly it was no longer a question of liberation, but of self-defense.
In fact, the Georgian leadership, as Western observers noticed, had already amassed 12,000 troops and 75 tanks on the border with South Ossetia on the morning of Aug. 7. In a decree ordering a general mobilization, which was not published until Aug. 9, Saakashvili noted that the Russian troops had advanced through the Roki tunnel on Aug. 8, which was after the Georgian attack.
The commission, which questioned senior military officers and politicians in Moscow and then Tbilisi in recent weeks, is closely examining such contradictions. But the EU representatives also received their fair share of ambiguous answers from Russian military officials and their allies in South Ossetia.
For example, the EU investigators sharply condemn the Russian military for not having prevented South Ossetians from burning down Georgian villages in their territory and driving out the inhabitants.
The commission's report, which is expected to be submitted in early summer, will also likely criticize Russia for having provided South Ossetians with Russian passports for years. International law experts see this as meddling in Georgia's internal affairs. Nevertheless, the EU investigations seems to be more of a problem for Tbilisi than for Moscow.
The stance taken by Temur Yakobashvili, Georgia's "minister for reintegration" of the breakaway province, shows just how nervous the Georgian president and his supporters are about the independent commission's findings. Yakobashvili, a Saakashvili confidant, has criticized the commission and its experts, who he claims are funded by Russian energy giant Gazprom -- a charge the commission strongly rejects.
Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who was the UN secretary-general's special representative for Georgia and Abkhazia from 2002 to 2006, heads the commission. Her deputy is Uwe Schramm, a former German ambassador to Georgia. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is an adviser to the commission.
The EU representatives' investigations are already seen as politically sensitive in Tbilisi today, long before their official publication, because more and more former allies of Saakashvili are now blaming the authoritarian president for the war and calling for his resignation.
Irakli Alasania, the Georgian ambassador to the UN during the war in the Caucasus, has become the spokesman of the opposition. Alasania is respected as a serious politician by the Obama administration. Saakashvili's adversaries include a former prime minister, a former foreign minister, a former defense minister and the former speaker of the parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze, who, together with Saakashvili, led the country's "Rose Revolution" in 2003.
Now Saakashvili's former comrades-in-arms want to mobilize the people once again. In a repeat of the events of six years ago, they want to stage a demonstration on Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, calling for the ouster of the current president. For the Georgian opposition, the painstaking investigations of the EU enquiry come at a very opportune time.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© DER SPIEGEL 13/2009
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