The War – Our Fault? Their Fault? Who Cares?

by TOL

2 October 2009

Mikheil Saakashvili can rest assured that the new, critical report on Georgia’s role in the Ossetian war will have almost no domestic repercussions.

Usually assessments of wars are left for the history books after scholars have pored over musty documents and questioned aging officials on who did what, how, and why. And of course, ascertained blame.

This week, however, a 1,000-page report on the 2008 Georgian-Russian war was issued under European Union auspices. The report’s authors aimed to dig deeper than any previous inquiry and figure out, as definitively and independently as possible, what happened during those five fateful days. They essentially damn both sides. Russia had set the stage for the conflict with “years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence,” and had then acted with force and aggression incompatible with the real threat to its peacekeepers, including illegal excursions into undisputed Georgian territory. Georgia had, however, fired the war’s first shots, shelling South Ossetia – an unjustified act according to international law because of the failure to substantiate proof of a real Russian invasion.

In a democracy, such as Georgia purports to be, a conclusion like that might be fatal for the sitting president who ordered those shots, especially coupled with the disastrous results: the predictable over-reaction of Russia, the lack of military intervention from the West, and the loss of a further chunk of this small country’s territory.

But, despite billions in foreign aid and the best hopes of its Western supporters, Georgia is not close to being a mature democracy, and President Mikheil Saakashvili can rest assured that the report will have almost no domestic repercussions.

The reasons are many. First, parliament offers no hope of a vigorous cross-examination of government actions before and during the war, as the opposition holds a small minority of the 150 seats. Popular protests, for the time being, can also be ruled out, after street demonstrations that began with tens of thousands of opposition supporters in April petered out by July, leaving no tangible results and the opposition just as weak and divided as before.

With those disheartening results in very recent memory, any energy or influence to turn the EU report’s conclusions into action would be near impossible. Perhaps back in July, when protests were still taking place outside parliament, but not today (the rumor mill in Tbilisi says the Georgian government asked for the report’s two-month delay until a more “opportune” time). In all likelihood, the report’s conclusions will be old news by the time local elections roll around next spring, when they could potentially be used as campaign fodder.

Second, it remains extremely risky to promote any standpoint that could be labeled as being in the interests of Russia. In the past few days, only a few opposition leaders have openly criticized Saakashvili for starting the war, citing the report’s findings. The others concentrated more on pushing the government line that the report was one more piece of evidence that Russia had started preparing for the war a long time ago and that Saakashvili simply fell into a Russian trap. Civil Georgia, a respected online news site, reported that comments by the few opposition members of parliament “were mostly in line with those made by the ruling party lawmakers and government representatives” – not exactly a group chomping at the bit to smear the president with some bad news.

PATRIOTIC MEDIA COVERAGE

Third, the media, with only a few exceptions, haven’t moved very far from their position in the immediate aftermath of the war, when rallying around the flag combined with political pressure and self-censorship suffocated almost all diversity in opinion. At the time, the only real discussion programs on television were taken off the air, leaving only biased, uninformative news coverage to fill hours of airtime, without any debate over some of the questionable moves of the Georgian leadership. Instead, most stations covered the war as “patriots,” taking the government slant and encouraging nationalistic sentiments.

The mainstream media’s coverage of the EU report shows little has changed. Controlled by those close to the government, most media largely parrot the official line, showing only the investigators’ damaging conclusions about Russia (the premeditated aspects of the conflict, the violations of international law, and so on). Either a bunch of reporters too lazy to read the report or challenge the government have taken root or their editors have told them which parts to stress and which parts to conveniently leave out. As a result, many Georgians were ready to dismiss the findings as too “balanced” and too favorable to Russia, yet another European concession because of energy interests.

Fourth, the vast majority of Georgians have simply tired by now of the endless discussions over who started the war. The report may have been eagerly awaited by the minions who have been fighting proxy wars in the international media on behalf of one side’s version of the events of August 2008 (for an interesting overview of that “war,” see a piece in the August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review). But locals know that no matter who draws the blame, Russia isn’t going to suddenly leave the occupied territories or Georgian refugees return to their destroyed houses. Dozens of accounts over the past year have illustrated just how miserable life for a great number of Georgians still is, let alone the so-called internally displaced.

“Travelling on bumpy unrepaired roads for hours before reaching forgotten villages reminded me of Africa,” wrote Pierre Schori, the director of the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE, in a recent “one year after” report on a trip to the countryside near South Ossetia. “People seemed to lack everything and expressed resigned hopelessness … Donor organisations I met in the field complained that too much assistance was given in a blank cheque to big government projects, such as infrastructure and buildings, money invested that never trickled down to the villages and people in need.”

Schori mentions a report by former Georgian Minister of Finance Vladimer Papava into the impact of the billions of aid promised after the war that concludes, Schori writes, that “there has not been enough transparency and accountability in Georgia, and no real control from the donor community. The role of parliament as watchdog was also minimal, given the strong government majority.”

In any case, many people have more basic worries today than the precise causes of the war. Opinion polls show that the majority of Georgians believe it was Russia who started the war and that the war is still going on. The figures have stayed nearly the same since September 2008 and the report will likely do nothing to change that – especially in a country where an open debate on the matter remains a mere pipe dream.

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