Georgia to Investigate 2008 Russian Conflict

Determined to discredit his political rival President Mikheil Saakashvili at any cost, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government announced a criminal investigation into the 2008 South Ossetia War. Prosecutor-General Archil Kbilashvili will head a special group consisting of investigators from his office, the Interior Ministry, and the Military Police. Kbilashvili said that the probe will, “look into possible criminal activities during and after the war,” and may include summoning Saakashvili to answer questions.  Ivanishvili would like nothing better.

There is little doubt that the outcome of the 2008 conflict was disastrous for Georgia and Saakashvili. Outcomes, however, do not determine criminality. Ivanishvili’s government’s investigation of the conflict is nothing more than another attempt to cement him and his Georgian Dream coalition in power by discrediting his main opposition.

The status of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been simmering since the end of Georgia’s four-year civil war in the mid 1990s. Separate cease-fire agreements in the provinces were being enforced under the auspices of joint peacekeeping missions consisting of Georgian, Russian, and provincial forces.  The shaky status quo remained until Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 swept former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze from the presidency and brought Saakashvili to power.

Saakashvili saw reestablishing sovereignty over the provinces as a high priority from the beginning of his administration.  On a broader scale, he moved to reform state institutions and aligned his foreign policy with the West with the stated goals of attaining NATO and EU membership for Georgia.  This was a direct slap in the face to Russia, headed by former KGB man Vladimir Putin.

Early in his first term, Saakashvili managed to peacefully diffuse a crisis in another rebellious province, Adjara, forcing the pro-Russian leader to resign.  Emboldened by that success, he moved more forcefully to bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi’s complete control.  Brief skirmishing between Georgian troops and Russian-backed local militias yielded another stalemate in the summer of 2004, and a government sponsored peace offering failed to take hold in 2005.  By 2008, with Georgia drawing ever closer to the US and Western Europe, the situation was ripe for another conflict.

Russia made its move in early August, sending non-peacekeeping units into South Ossetia and shelling Georgian positions.  Saakashvili reacted rashly, launching a full-scale incursion into the territory, seizing the provincial capital Tskhinvali.  Russia’s response was swift and overwhelming.  Over the next five days Russian troops pushed the Georgians out of Tskhinvali and most of the province, briefly took control of the city of Gori on the road to Tbilisi, conducted air strikes on targets on the outskirts of the capital, and took control of large swaths of Abkhazia, including the Black Sea port of Poti.  An internationally brokered cease-fire left Moscow in de facto control of more than 20 percent of Georgian territory and Russian troops stationed permanently in the provinces.

Ivanishvili’s desire to rekindle Tbilisi’s relationship with the Kremlin is no secret.  When speaking to Western audiences, however, he adheres to the official line Saakashvili’s governments held, vowing no normalization until Russian troops are completely removed from Georgian soil.  At home, his government’s actions betray his true intentions. This investigation and another begun late last year into the death of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania in which conspiracy theorists allege Saakashvili’s involvement, are calculated to embarrass the president in the hope of forcing his resignation before his term expires later this year.  That would leave Ivanishvili virtually unopposed to implement his agenda.

Despite Ivanishvili’s best efforts, Saakashvili is still viewed in the West as a champion of liberty and democracy in the Caucasus.  Ivanishvili’s over-zealous pursuit of former Saakashvili administration figures on trumped up charges has already raised eyebrows in Europe, drawing a public rebuke from NATO secretary-general Fogh Rasmussen.  This new investigation is sure to raise more questions about Ivanishvili’s commitment to the democratic progress Georgia made under his predecessor.  It goes without saying that legitimate allegations of wrongdoing should be thoroughly investigated and the guilty punished.  Politically motivated sham investigations intended to besmirch an internationally respected political rival have no place in the new Georgia.

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