|Many Georgians feel that Russia is to blame for the five-day conflict [EPA]|
It was all quiet at the Georgian checkpoint on the edge of South Ossetia as the European Union-sponsored commission published its investigation into last year’s war.
Georgian policemen in camouflage fatigues chatted amiably with EU ceasefire monitors, who have stepped up their patrols around the publication of the report in case of renewed outbreaks of violence.
A short walk from the checkpoint, in the bomb-damaged frontline village of Ergneti, burnt-out houses offered a poignant reminder of the brutality of the brief but intense conflict in August 2008.
Some Georgians who live in villages near the ceasefire line had not heard about the crucial EU-backed investigation, but they were clear about who to blame for the war: Russia.
“I pray to God every day that before I die, I will see my country liberated from the Russians,” declared one woman in the village of Ditsi, which also was hit during the fighting.
Across the road, an elderly farmer said he did not believe that the new report would change anything.
“This village will still be in ruins. We can’t even go to our fields beyond the checkpoint there,” he said, pointing to a police post fortified by sandbags and guarded by armed officers.
Both sides have been trying to gain the moral advantage in the media battle for international public opinion.
Russia and Georgia blamed over war
Russia stands by Georgia war action
South Ossetia ready for ‘invasion’
A thorny ‘rose revolution’
The Georgian government has been quick to counter claims that the commission’s report suggests that Georgia was responsible for the conflict.
“The commission confirms that Russia invaded Georgia before Georgia took military action,” a government statement argued.
“It also confirms that Georgian civilians and peacekeepers were under attack, on Georgian soil, before August 7.
“The report also gives ample evidence of Russia’s military buildup in the months before August 2008, and of Russia’s political provocations that violated Georgian sovereignty and international law.”
Despite strong criticism of Georgia’s actions in the report, many ordinary people on the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, backed their government’s position.
“Russia is to blame; it has long been trying to take away Georgia’s territories,” said Lia Tevdoradze, an economist.
The Georgian minister for reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, suggested that the report proved without doubt that Moscow had been getting ready for a fight for a long time.
“You can’t find a single word in this report which says that Georgia started the war,” he said.
“Any provocations or interpretations around this issue will be a lie.”
This view was also expressed by ordinary Georgians in Tbilisi, many of whom believe that Moscow has long been trying to intimidate and subjugate its smaller former Soviet neighbour, and punish their country for its pro-Western orientation and its desire to join Nato.
|EU report: Key findings|
Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, which started August conflict, was not justifiable under international law
Russia’s initial military response was legal, but subsequent action went “beyond reasonable limits”
Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces all violated international humanitarian law
Recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independence “illegal”
“Russia started the war not in 2008, but long before that,” said Tamar Sepashvili, a recent graduate.
Like many Georgian politicians, she also stressed that Georgia did not invade another country’s sovereign territory – Russia did.
“It was Russia who intervened across the internationally recognised borders,” she said.
The Georgian government denied accusations in the commission’s report that it used “unnecessary and disproportionate force” during its assault on the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia.
“No democratic government can survive if, when foreign forces enter its territory, it fails to defend its citizens,” its statement said.
However, on the streets, there were some dissenting voices which rejected the official line.
Zurab Svanishvili, a student, said he believed that “both sides were to blame” for the conflict.
He suggested that the Kremlin had been trying to provoke the Georgian authorities, who then fell into a carefully-laid trap by sending in the troops.
“In my opinion, there was a chance to avoid the war,” he said.
Opposition politicians have criticised the government of Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, in the past for allegedly leading the country into a disastrous and unwinnable conflict which killed hundreds and drove tens of thousands from their homes.
But, however the EU-sponsored commission’s conclusions are interpreted in the world’s media, many Georgians are unlikely to change their view that Russia was the aggressor.