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Georgia Sees Vindication in War Report

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Saakashvili Touts One Finding, but His Opponents Use Inquiry to Step Up Criticism

By Sarah Marcus
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 4, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia — If you believe television coverage here, Georgia was fully vindicated this week by an independent European investigation into the causes of its war with Russia last year.

Never mind the inquiry’s conclusion that Georgia triggered the war, or its rejection of Georgia’s claims that it acted in self-defense against a large-scale Russian attack. The nation’s three main television stations all tended to repeat without qualification the official government line that the probe’s final report “confirms that Russia invaded Georgia.”

The friendly coverage is one reason the much-anticipated report to the European Union published on Wednesday is unlikely to hurt President Mikheil Saakashvili’s political standing in Georgia, at least in the short term.

Another is that much of the Georgian public, especially those who support the president, concluded long ago that Russia was to blame, analysts said.

Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer backed by the George W. Bush administration who has faced criticism for resisting democratic reforms, welcomed the report’s findings Thursday after initially maintaining an unusual silence.

“They said even more truth than I could ever imagine,” he told residents in a meeting broadcast live on television, referring to the European investigators. “It is a great diplomatic victory for Georgia.”

But the report said Georgia violated international law and triggered the August 2008 war by shelling the breakaway region of South Ossetia. It also rejected as unsubstantiated Saakashvili’s oft-repeated assertion that Russia had launched a large-scale invasion requiring him to order a counterattack.

“They say that Georgia did not observe everything and violated something,” Saakashvili said. “But it does not matter.”

The report prompted a fresh round of recriminations between Saakashvili and the beleaguered Georgian opposition. It has long accused him of dictating coverage on national television, and of mishandling the war and losing 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.

Opponents have been generally wary of being portrayed as siding with Russia, but Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of Parliament who leads the opposition Democratic Movement United Georgia party, seized on the report’s conclusions to step up her criticism of Saakashvili.

“Saakashvili lied to the Georgian people about the Russian invasion,” she said. “Of course, there was a threat from Russia, but the president should have avoided falling into Russia’s trap, which many people, including myself, warned him about repeatedly.”

Another leading opposition figure, Irakli Alasania, the former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations, accused Saakashvili of making a “politically irresponsible decision, which triggered full-scale war and threatened Georgia’s statehood.” But he stopped short of accusing him of deceiving the public about a Russian invasion.

The European mission acknowledged that some Russian military personnel appeared to have entered Georgia before Saakashvili ordered the attack on South Ossetia, a finding that the Georgian government has presented as proof of an invasion. The government has also emphasized the mission’s findings that Russian-backed South Ossetian militia conducted ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages and that Russia’s invasion of Georgia was illegal and unjustified.

Georgian newspaper and radio coverage has aimed for balance. The three national television channels — the most influential and popular media here — have reported opposition criticism but tilted coverage in favor of the authorities.

“Most of the national television companies are friendly toward the government, so they adopted positions that were beneficial to the government, and the report allows for this approach,” said Ghia Nodia, a political scientist at Chavchavadze State University, arguing that the report was written so carefully that different sides could cherry-pick findings to support their narratives of the war.

“The Georgian opposition hoped to use the report to its advantage, but it won’t work. The war as an issue has already been used up and the report is not strong enough to revitalize it,” Nodia added.

Saakashvili survived a wave of opposition street protests demanding his resignation in the spring, and aides say he remains popular in public opinion polls.

But Lincoln Mitchell, a specialist on Georgian politics at Columbia University, said the government’s strategy of focusing only on the parts of the reports that support its positions may eventually fall short with the public.

“This is a government which has spent the last year saying very firmly that it didn’t start the war,” he said. “Either the Georgian people will think that their government lied to them, or they will think that the E.U. is against them. Either way, that is not a comfortable position for Georgia.”

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