Georgia Latches On to Silver Lining in Inquiry on War

A European mission's report concludes that Russia illegally invaded Georgia last year, but also that Georgia triggered the war by shelling South Ossetia.
A European mission's report concludes that Russia illegally invaded Georgia last year, but also that Georgia triggered the war by shelling South Ossetia. (By Sergei Grits -- Associated Press)
By Sarah Marcus
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 4, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia -- If you believe television coverage here, Georgia was fully vindicated this week by an independent European investigation into the causes of its war with Russia last year.

Never mind the inquiry's conclusion that Georgia triggered the war, or its rejection of Georgia's claims that it acted in self-defense against a large-scale Russian attack. The nation's three main television stations all tended to repeat without qualification the official government line that the probe's final report "confirms that Russia invaded Georgia."

The friendly coverage is one reason the much-anticipated report to the European Union published on Wednesday is unlikely to hurt President Mikheil Saakashvili's political standing in Georgia, at least in the short term.

Another is that much of the Georgian public, especially those who support the president, concluded long ago that Russia was to blame, analysts said.

Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer backed by the George W. Bush administration who has faced criticism for resisting democratic reforms, welcomed the report's findings Thursday after initially maintaining an unusual silence.

"They said even more truth than I could ever imagine," he told residents in a meeting broadcast live on television, referring to the European investigators. "It is a great diplomatic victory for Georgia."

But the report said Georgia violated international law and triggered the August 2008 war by shelling the breakaway region of South Ossetia. It also rejected as unsubstantiated Saakashvili's oft-repeated assertion that Russia had launched a large-scale invasion requiring him to order a counterattack.

"They say that Georgia did not observe everything and violated something," Saakashvili said. "But it does not matter."

The report prompted a fresh round of recriminations between Saakashvili and the beleaguered Georgian opposition. It has long accused him of dictating coverage on national television, and of mishandling the war and losing 20 percent of Georgia's territory.

Opponents have been generally wary of being portrayed as siding with Russia, but Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of Parliament who leads the opposition Democratic Movement United Georgia party, seized on the report's conclusions to step up her criticism of Saakashvili.

"Saakashvili lied to the Georgian people about the Russian invasion," she said. "Of course, there was a threat from Russia, but the president should have avoided falling into Russia's trap, which many people, including myself, warned him about repeatedly."

Another leading opposition figure, Irakli Alasania, the former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, accused Saakashvili of making a "politically irresponsible decision, which triggered full-scale war and threatened Georgia's statehood." But he stopped short of accusing him of deceiving the public about a Russian invasion.

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