On 1 September 2008, the Office for a Democratic Belarus attended a debate organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States entitled ‘The War in Georgia and Relations with Russia: What happened and What Now?’ in Brussels, Belgium. Five panellists, including Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s State Minister for Reintegration; Radoslaw Sikorski, the Foreign Minister of Poland; Matthew Bryza, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs; Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian Ambassador to the European Union, and Eckart Von Klaeden, Foreign Policy Spokesman of the CDU/CSU in the German Bundestag, took part in the discussion moderated by Ronald Asmus, the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Centre and Strategic Planning of the GMF.
The event took place just prior to the start of EU emergency talks on the situation in the Caucasus that aimed to bring about a united response of the 27-nation bloc to Russia’s actions against Georgia.
Replying to a question about the origins of the conflict, Temuri Yakobashvili said Georgia saw it coming for a long time and had repeatedly voiced its concerns over Russia’s inauspicious behaviour. When in May 2008, he told some senior officials in Brussels that the region was on the brink of war, their response was “Don’t mention the W word in this city, it is not welcome”. Minster Yakobashvili further maintained that Georgia had intervened only when the situation on the ground became intolerable. Yet he noted that all evidence suggests that the Russian actions were planned long in advance.
Ambassador Chizhov said Moscow tried to resolve the conflict diplomatically and frequently warned the US administration about the rise of tensions in the region since there were signals indicating that Georgia intended to use force against South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He alleged that Russian ‘peacekeepers’ came under fire during a Georgian offensive and that their subsequent actions were simply a retaliatory measure designed to protect the civilian population of the region. He also refuted the claims that Russia’s use of force in the conflict was disproportionate. In a reply to a question about a possible EU police mission in the buffer zones, the Russian Ambassador said his country was willing to discuss this with its EU partners.
The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Bryza, believes Georgia’s decision to attack Tskhinvali was deeply unwise. He however denied the Russian allegations that the United States gave Tbilisi the green light to use military force. ‘It [Georgia] is a sovereign country with a democratically elected government, whose officials have to make their own decisions in a way that they believe is protecting their national interest", said Bryza. He also noted that the Russians exaggerated the number of deaths among South Ossetian civilians and claimed that the damage in ethnic Georgian villages resulting from the Russian attack was far greater than the consequences of Georgia’s initial strike on Tskhinvali.
Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski shared the US diplomat’s opinion that Georgia stepped into a Russian trap. He claimed he personally warned the Georgians not to allow themselves to be provoked in order not to lose support in the West. Temuri Yakobashvili, however, said it was a conscious choice. “We made a choice to resist the Russian aggression”, explained the Georgian official.
Minister Sikorski did not agree with the Russian Ambassador, who claimed that the Cold War analogy in the current situation was incongruous due to the absence of differences in ideologies. In Sikorski’s opinion, this is not entirely the case. He explained that while the EU is ‘in the business of opening borders’, Russia continues to maintain a more traditional view on this issue. He also assumed that the EU’s and Russia’s divergent approaches to the rule of law and the way of protecting its citizens abroad suggest philosophical differences.
Eckart Von Klaeden, Foreign Policy Spokesman of the CDU/CSU, said Russia's attack on Georgia and its decision to recognise two breakaway Georgian regions' independence are in violation of international law; and, Russia must face consequences. For instance, the EU could re-consider its visa liberalisation agreement with Russia – an idea that was rejected by Minister Sikorski. Another possible consequence, in Von Klaeden’s opinion, might be related to foreign investments in Russia. The German official admitted that in the last few years Russia has been treated too mildly in Germany and that there is a need to re-adjust German policy.
It should be noted that Moscow has so far failed to win support of its actions in Georgia even among its closest allies. For instance, a communiqué of the most recent Shanghai Co-operation Organisation summit, which took place in Dushanbe in August 2008 and was attended by Central Asian and Chinese leaders, simply expresses ‘grave concern in connection with the recent tensions around the South Ossetian issue and urge the sides to solve existing problems peacefully, through dialogue, and to make efforts facilitating reconciliation and talks." While China’s attitude can be explained by its usual anxiety over issues relating to separatism, Russia’s inability to secure the compliance of its otherwise loyal Central Asian allies is rather surprising.
Central Asian Republics’ reticence to recognise independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia comes after Russia’s another ally, Belarus, only produced a statement supporting the Russian intervention in Georgia following its Russian Ambassador’s critical remarks about Minsk’s silence on the issue. Belarus, however, has hitherto also declined to recognise the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions.