EU Report Will Not Resolve Georgian-Russian Standoff

So the European Union is finally set to release its long-awaited report on who was responsible for the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008. The findings are expected to announce that Georgia started the war by attacking South Ossetia, but that Russia, in effect, baited Tbilisi by stirring up the separatist enclaves, training their militaries, and handing them Russian passports, giving Moscow its dubious “responsibility to protect” rationale for war. It also may back the claim that Russia used disproportionate force.

To which most observers of the situation will probably respond: D’uh! There appears to be nothing new unearthed in the 500-page document that most reporters did not already know, nor is it likely to stop the finger-pointing or resolve the question over which side was to blame. The report punts on laying responsibility on any one person or country.

The findings of the investigation were held up because of new documentation that surfaced (though some suspect it was not to rattle nerves ahead of the one-year anniversary in August). The chief investigator, a seasoned Swiss diplomat named Heidi Tagliavini, is known as someone who is quite thorough and a perfectionist.

Yet the Georgians still accused the investigators of harboring a pro-Russia bias (there were charges that two of its researchers worked for Gazprom-financed organizations in the past). When a Der Spiegel article ran last summer on the EU report, many in Tbilisi similarly accused the author of harboring similar hostilities toward Georgia.

Regardless of the sympathies of the above individuals, it is impossible to have an honest debate on the war when anyone who disagrees with the government line in Tbilisi is accused of being a KGB spy or Russian sympathizer (an article I wrote this summer for Foreign Affairs quoting various individuals was attacked along similar lines). The Georgians do themselves a disservice when they stifle such open debate.

Yet, to be fair, the Russians are not doing anyone any favors by their bizarre claims they were trying to prevent genocide and protect their own people (who were handed Russian passports only shortly before). It is hard not to conclude, based on the maneuverings leading up the outbreak of violence last summer, that the Russians were doing everything in their power to provoke Georgia’s hotheaded president. They also look foolish when they enlist the likes of Hugo Chavez to back the recognition of Georgia’s breakaway republics, as if that confers any international legitimacy to their claims.

It is also interesting that the report is being released so under the radar—there will be no formal presentation or EU official stance on the matter—as if its authors are almost fearful of garnering any attention from the press or public. Of course, the hush-hush release of its findings will only generate more interest in what it contains.

Even over one year after the fact, the debate over the war remains highly politicized. There are those in Brussels and Washington who may hold its findings up as Exhibit A for why they should not back the Georgian regime, much less push for its entrance into such exclusive clubs like NATO. The government is unpredictable, undemocratic (at least at times), and unworthy of greater support. Plus, why needlessly tick off the Russians at a time when we need their support on other more pressing issues, like Iran? Others, however, will argue that the report confirms their worst suspicions about Moscow and that Georgia, much like the rest of Eastern Europe, lives under the threat of Russian tanks and therefore needs U.S. help—economic as well as military—now more than ever.

There is no right or wrong side to this debate. But there is not much the West can do from the sidelines, short of intervening in the region more directly (a dumb move) or inviting Georgia into NATO (ditto). Brussels will step up its monitoring presence in the region and Washington will balk at following suit but likely continue its training of the Georgian military, much to Russia’s chagrin. But beyond that, things will continue to slow boil until Georgians and Russians settle their dispute themselves. That may require new leadership on both sides (for Georgia, that will come in 2013; for Russia, that could be decades away). Or it may require some outside nudging, something the EU report seems unlikely to accomplish.

Regardless of its contents, it may not be important over which side shot the first bullet, as the seeds of war were planted long before August 2008. By over-focusing on settling this one point, the Russian and Georgian stances risk becoming only further entrenched as the space for future dialogue shrinks. Indeed, the real danger is that the EU report will only make both sides more bitter toward the other.

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