|The August 2008 conflict began when Georgia fired on South Ossetia [EPA]|
Last year’s conflict divided public opinion over who started the five-day war between Russia and Georgia.
Over the past year, both sides have lobbied the international community to condemn the other party, but now EU investigators have released the most authoritative report yet on how the war began.
The EU-commissioned report concludes that Georgia ignited last year’s war by attacking separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
In response, Russian tanks, supported by fighter jets, began pouring into the province to defend the separatists in Tskinvali, the enclave’s capital.
What followed was a five-day bitter war that ended with Russia pushing deep into Georgian territory and staying there in violation of the terms of an EU-brokered peace agreement.
Russia and Georgia blamed over war
South Ossetia ready for ‘invasion’
A thorny ‘rose revolution’
While Wednesday’s report condemns Georgia for starting the conflict, it also passes weighty judgment on Russia for stoking it and exploiting the conditions that led to war, conditions that, according to Nato, saw Russia using “disproportionate” military force against Georgia.
Russia’s conduct during the conflict prompted the Nato alliance to suspend formal ties for seven months while it considered the implications of Moscow’s actions.
Russia justified its tactics as the only way to ensure the safety of its citizens in South Ossetia, where the vast majority of the population have Russian passports.
“If Russian troops had acted disproportionately, then why didn’t they make it all the way to Tblisi?” Dmitry Ragozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, said.
While the EU report goes some way towards shaping international opinions on who started the conflict, some say the report fails to account for the gravity of Russia’s actions.
|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”
Earlier this month 12 prominent European thinkers and former leaders, mainly from post-Soviet Eastern Europe, issued an open letter in which they urged the authors of the EU report to “remember the painful lessons of our recent past”.
They asked the EU to consider “which country invaded the other, rather than which soldier shot the first bullet”.
Russia, on the other hand, believes its actions during the conflict were justified, and that the presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil and the 800 currently stationed in South Ossetia are necessary to prevent any further escalation of violence.
The feeling in Moscow is that Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, and his allies in Eastern Europe are attempting to exploit bitter memories of Soviet occupation to stir up anti-Russian sentiment.
Moscow believes that because the vast majority of South Ossetians favour independence and closer ties with the Kremlin, it gives credence to Russia’s presence on what is technically Georgian territory.
So far only Venezuela and Nicaragua have followed Russia’s lead in recognising South Ossetian independence.
Saakashvili and his supporters see things very differently – that the presence of Russian forces in Georgia’s breakaway regions amounts to an occupation.
In a passionate address at the 64th session of the United Nations last week Saakashvili said that the country will not accept dividing lines in its territory.
He underlined that the international community cannot turn a blind eye to “invasion”.
Accusations of violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing have been traded between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetian conflict, but human rights groups on the ground have struggled to establish the facts.
It is widely accepted that ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia were systematically destroyed to prevent ethnic Georgians from returning.
At the same time it is believed that Georgian forces may have targeted pro-separatist civilians during the conflict.
But authoritative independent voices are scarce and few expect answers to some of the more sensitive questions any time soon.
While the EU report gives the international community a clearer idea of how the war started, it fails to clear up the political fall-out over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway province, or ease bitter ethnic tensions on both sides of the divide.