After a lengthy inquiry, investigators commissioned by the European Union are expected to conclude that Georgia triggered last year’s war with Russia by attacking separatists in South Ossetia, rejecting Tbilisi’s explanation that the attack was defensive, according to an official familiar with the commission’s work.
But the official said the report is expected to balance this conclusion with an equally weighty one: If Georgia fired the first shot, Russia created and exploited the conditions that led to war. For years running up to the conflict, Russia encouraged separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, distributed Russian passports in the enclaves and beefed up its military capability.
The European Union inquiry is the most authoritative investigation into the causes of last August’s war, which devastated Georgia and brought relations between Russia and the West to a post-cold-war low. Russia and Georgia have each maintained that they acted defensively, and with feelings still raw in both capitals, heavily lobbied the international community to condemn the other party.
Investigators have closely guarded the report’s contents, which will be presented to the European Union’s Council of Ministers at noon on Wednesday and then released to the public. A spokesman for the mission refused to discuss any of its contents before the Wednesday release.
By blaming both countries, the report seems unlikely to resolve the debate over which bears more overall responsibility. Most countries have already taken a firm position on the enclaves, which only Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognized as sovereign nations. Europe and the United States have uniformly criticized the Kremlin for changing Georgia’s borders by force, and for violating the “six-point agreement,” a French-brokered ceasefire that required Russia to withdraw its troops to pre-war positions.
But the inquiry will break ground by determining who started the war. Mr. Saakashvili has said he had no choice but to order the shelling of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, variouslyexplaining that it was necessary to stop attacks on Georgian villages, to bring the region under control or to deter a Russian invasion that was already underway. Georgia has also released telephone intercepts from Ossetian border guards which purport to show that a Russian armored regiment crossed into South Ossetia a full day before Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali.
Russia’s claims are also likely to come under scrutiny. The Kremlin has said it invaded Georgia to protect Russian citizens, based on Moscow’s practice of distributing Russian passports to citizens of the separatist enclaves; it also claims it was compelled to stop a genocide, invoking a grave principle in international law.
Russia has also asserted the right to defend its peacekeeping troops legally stationed in South Ossetia, a claim that may prove more durable. But it is not clear how far that reasoning would extend, since Russian troops did not simply take control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but moved into central Georgia and conducted bombing raids there. It then recognized both territories as sovereign nations and offered to protect their borders, effectively cutting off a fifth of Georgia’s territory.
Headed by a Swiss diplomat, Heidi Tagliavini, the inquiry was begun last December amid debate in Europe over how strongly to back Georgia in its ongoing conflict with Russia. Eastern European countries said Russia’s policies in Georgia epitomized Moscow’s dangerous expansionist tendencies; some in Western Europe were more skeptical of Mr. Saakashvili, who had made regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia a goal of his presidency.
The dispute has quieted since then. An attempt to topple Mr. Saakashvili’s government by domestic opposition has failed, and both NATO and the United States have embarked on a tentative warming with Russia. Georgian leaders, who still enjoy strong political support from Washington, say they have accepted that they will not regain control of the territories by force, or quickly.
Nevertheless, the report has been awaited with some anxiety. The release, originally scheduled just before the anniversary of the war, was delayed for two months when new documents became available. The European Union’s Monitoring Mission announced last week that it would step up its patrols near the conflict zones this week, to ward off any violence that might occur.