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19th Aug 2022

EU-sponsored report says Georgia started 2008 war

  • The initial Georgian assault was illegal and disproportionate, the study said (Photo: Nir Nußbaum)

Georgia started the 2008 war with Russia by illegally attacking the town of Tskhinvali, a major EU-sponsored report has concluded.

"There is the question of whether the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia, beginning with the shelling of Tskhinvali during the night of 7/8 August, was justifiable under international law. It was not," the study says.

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"The [EU-sponsored] mission is not in a position to consider as sufficiently substantiated the Georgian claim concerning a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before 8 August 2008."

Georgia's use of multiple rocket launchers and heavy artillery in the Tskhinvali assault was neither necessary nor proportionate to repel alleged attacks by South Ossetian separatists, the report adds.

The 1,150-page long study is the culmination of nine months of work by a 20-strong team of legal and military experts based in Geneva and headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini.

EU member states last year launched and paid for the €1.6 million investigation. The independent survey comes atop nine previous reports into the conflict by other organs, including the UN, the US Congress and the British House of Lords.

Ms Tagliavini's study also heaped blame on Russia and on South Ossetian irregular forces.

It said Russia had the right to defend Russian peacekeeping soldiers stationed in Tskhinvali. But it described Russia's subsequent mass-scale incursion into Georgia as illegal and disproportionate.

"Much of the Russian action went beyond the reasonable limits of self-defence," it said. "Extended Russian military action reaching out into Georgia was conducted in violation of international law."

The Swiss report rejected Russia's claims that it was acting to protect Russian citizens in South Ossetia.

Russia's "passportisation" scheme of granting citizenship to thousands of South Ossetians in the run-up to the war was illegal and the people in question remained Georgian citizens, it said.

Russia also tolerated serious human rights abuses by Ossetian paramilitaries against ethnic Georgians in its sphere of command. The abuses included rapes, violent assaults and forced displacements amounting to "ethnic cleansing."

Ms Tagliavini's study painted an overall picture of a Vladimir Putin-era Russia trying to restore control over its former vassal state in a campaign of subversion and provocation lasting several years.

But she refused to apportion ultimate blame for the war on either side.

"Where lies the responsibility for all that has happened? Overall, the conflict is rooted in a profusion of causes comprising different layers in time and actions combined," the Swiss diplomat wrote. "They have all failed."

EU digests findings

Miss Tagliavini in Brussels on Wednesday (30 September) presented her findings to senior EU diplomats and the Russian and Georgian ambassadors to the union. The EU diplomats and the Swiss rapporteur also held a separate, behind-closed-doors discussion on the report.

The EU declined to make any political comment immediately after its publication, however.

"The EU hopes that its findings can contribute towards a better understanding of the origins and the course of last year's conflict and, in a broader perspective, serve as an input to future international efforts in the field of preventive diplomacy," it said in a statement.

The Swiss investigation also put some interesting numbers on the "five-day war."

Eight hundred and fifty people were killed in total, with 100,000 people displaced, 35,000 of whom still cannot go home.

Over 100 US military advisers were "reportedly" in Georgia on 7 August and "an even larger number of US specialists and advisors are thought to have been active in different branches of the Georgian power structures and administration," it said.

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