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Analysis & Opinion
01.10.09 Painting In Shades Of Grey
By Roland Oliphant

The long-awaited European Union commissioned report on the causes of the war on Georgia last year held few surprises. Most of the findings, which were originally due to be released in July, had been leaked well before the report was officially submitted this week. Nonetheless, both Russian and Georgian officials quickly joined the battle over what the report actually said.

“The views of the sides involved in the conflict have been widely divergent from the beginning, and appear to the getting more so as time goes by,” noted the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the Causes of the War in Georgia in the preamble to its report. And, as if anxious to endorse the mission’s findings, Russia and Georgia immediately embarked on a war of words over what it actually means.

It is not that either side is suspicious of the report, or condemning it as enemy propaganda. On the contrary, the mission was headed by Heidi Tagliavani, a respected Swiss diplomat whose impartiality was recognized by both sides, and the report praised both countries for the “un-hoped for and indeed very welcome degree of cooperation” they met from both Moscow and Tbilisi. Rather, neither Russia nor Georgia seems able to take into account the parts of the report that are less than flattering to themselves.

The Russians see as vindication the report’s finding that “open hostilities began with a large-scale Georgian military operation against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas, launched in the night of 7 to 8 of August, 2008.” That, say the Russians, means the Georgians started it.

Not so, say the Georgians. “Almost all of the facts in the report confirm the Georgian version of events,” said a Georgian Foreign Ministry statement released yesterday. “The Commission confirms that Russia invaded Georgia before Georgia took military action. It also confirms that Georgian civilians and peacekeepers were under attack, on Georgian soil, before August 7.”

Divergent indeed. But not surprising. “It was never going to help them find common ground,” said Sergei Markedonov, head of the Interethnic Relations Department at Moscow’s Institute of Political and Military Analysis and a specialist on Caucasian affairs. “Both sides will interpret the report to endorse their point of view, claim that ‘the European Union is on our side,’ and so on,” he said.

And there is ample room for either side to push their agenda. The commission found that the Georgian military assault was “illegal,” and that subsequent South Ossetian defensive actions were therefore legitimate – as was the initial Russian response after its peacekeepers were attacked. But the Russian incursion into Georgia, and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages by South Ossetian militias “that would or could not be controlled by regular Russian armed forces,” were equally illegitimate.

Neither side, however, has been keen to mention the sentence with which the section on legality concludes: “In a matter of a very few days, the pattern of legitimate and illegitimate military action had thus turned around between the two main actors, Georgia and Russia.”

What’s changed?

Although the report was independent, and both the authors and European officials have been at pains to point out that it has neither legal force, nor dictates policy (“the document is not a report on behalf of the EU,” as one unnamed official told the Kommersant daily), the suspicion remains that it does in some way either reflect or influence the view from Brussels. The Russian Foreign Ministry tempered its endorsement of the report with the observation that “some vague and ambiguous language” used by the authors “reflects the still politicized approach of many EU countries to the events of August 2008 and their consequences.”

However, in so far as it can be seen as a reflection of opinion in the EU, Tagliavani’s report is actually good news for Moscow. “Whether or not one thinks the conclusions are fair – and from the European point of view, of course, they are fair – the report gets rid of the black-and-white picture of the war in which Georgia is so wonderful and democratic and Russia is terrible,” he said. “And that is good for the dialogue with Europe.”

In terms of relations with Europe, the report is unlikely to change much. Despite caveats about “ambiguous language,” the generally warm reception of the report suggests Russia’s leaders share Markedonov’s view that it represents more of an “open” door than a closed one. Neither the Russians nor the Europeans are likely to allow this to stand in the way of recently improved relations.

The real significance of the report, then, lies in what it purports not to do – apportion blame. For, although it was “not a tribunal,” Tagliavani’s task was to investigate the causes of the war “including with regard to international law, humanitarian law and human rights, and the accusations made in that context.” And, like it or not, that has long-term implications.

Hence the Georgian Foreign Ministry’s “regret” that the commission failed to call the Russian incursion an invasion. And hence the Russian Foreign Ministry’s questioning of the use of the word “proportionality.” “It is the first attempt to establish the point of view of international law,” noted Markedonov, “which isn’t the same as a concrete legal decision, but it is an attempt to see where the law stands.” And until more information comes to light, the Tagliavani report is likely to become the authoritative account of the events of last August, and, whatever the authors may say to the contrary, is likely to inform any legal decisions eventually taken.
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