Monday

27th Mar 2017

EU to delay Georgia war report

The result of an EU-sponsored enquiry into the origins of the 2008 Georgia war is set to be delayed by two months, amid rising fears of fresh hostilities in the region.

EU diplomats in Brussels on Friday (3 July) agreed to the postponement from 31 July to September following a request from the Swiss-led investigation, the so-called IIFFMCG. The decision must be rubber-stamped by EU ministers, with the next ministerial due on Tuesday.

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Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, in charge of the probe, said she needs more time due to fresh material coming to light at a late stage, EU sources explained. The enquiry's €1.6 million EU budget is to remain unchanged.

Ms Tagliavini's findings could prove politically explosive.

If the report hangs blame on Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili, it could reinforce calls from Russia and the Georgian opposition for him to step down. If it burdens Russia, it could damage EU-Russia relations and impact Russia's participation in international conflict resolution mechanisms.

IIFFMCG documents leaked to German magazine Der Spiegel in June look bad for the Georgian leader.

The papers said the probe has found no evidence that Russian tanks entered Georgia's rebel-held South Ossetia region on 7 August, the day of Georgia's attack on the rebel capital.

One of the enquiry's experts, retired British colonel Christopher Langton, said the "country can only blame itself" for Russia's reaction. Another expert, German lawyer Otto Luchterhandt, said Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia were entitled to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN charter.

The Georgian president remained bullish in a TV address on Friday. "I want to assure that it [the probe] will say that we were right," Mr Saakashvili said.

The postponement comes at a time of mounting tension in Georgia.

A team of 20 OSCE monitors responsible for South Ossetia left Georgia on Friday after Russia declined to extend its mandate. Russia has also shut down a mission of 130 UN observers in Georgia's rebel-held Abkhazia territory.

The departures leave an EU monitoring mission - the EUMM, composed of 220 unarmed personnel - as the only international entity standing between the hostile forces.

The EUMM itself became a target on 21 June when a mine explosion killed the driver of an ambulance traveling in an EU convoy near the Abkhazian border. Georgia says 19 of its citizens have been killed in similar attacks since open warfare ended last August.

"We are not going in the right direction by withdrawing these two missions," an EU diplomat told EUobserver. "Things will remain tense. We are going to have a hot summer."

Russia flexes muscle

Russia's decision to hold large-scale military exercises in the Caucasus this week has also raised concern. The "Kavkaz 2009" wargames involved over 8,000 Russian troops, reportedly including Russian units in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and neighbouring Armenia.

Russian analysts Pavel Felgenhauer, who predicted the 2008 conflict, and Andrei Illarionov, a former Kremlin aide, have pointed to the risk of fresh hostilities after the visit to Moscow on 6 July of US president Barack Obama.

"The current situation resembles the situation of last year in the pre-war period," Medea Turashvili, a Tbilisi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, an NGO, told EUobserver.

A new conflict could serve the interests of Mr Saakashvili, who has faced opposition protests on the streets of Tbilisi since March, by rallying public support against an outside aggressor.

It could also help Russia to show who is boss in the post-Soviet sphere at a time when Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are building closer relations with the EU and, in some cases, Nato.

"Russia has made no secret of the fact it wants to see president Saakashvili removed," Georgia's EU ambassador, Salome Samadashvili, told this website. "It is important for Moscow to demonstrate that it can still orchestrate regime change in its neighbourhood."

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