Georgian and Russian leaders have traded barbs as Georgia marked the fifth anniversary of the countries’ brief 2008 war over the separatist territory of South Ossetia.
The government is holding a series of sombre events on Thursday, including a wreath-laying ceremony at an army cemetery in Tbilisi, and a military parade in the town of Gori, which was bombed and briefly occupied by Russian forces.
On the eve of the anniversary, Georgian and Russian politicians pointed fingers at each other over responsibility for the fighting.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was president at the time of the conflict, said in an interview on Georgian television that Russia’s action “was the only right decision”.
“If you’re asking if I would do the same thing again: yes,” Medvedev said, refusing to apologise for the conflict and laying the blame squarely at Tbilisi’s door.
On the night of August 7-8, 2008, Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili launched an offensive against fighters in the region South Ossetia. Saakashvili said he was reacting to attacks on ethnic Georgians and soldiers by South Ossetian fighters.
Is a lamb able to negotiate with a wolf?
Russia then intervened on behalf of its Ossetian allies, saying it was for humanitarian reasons aimed at keeping the peace. Within days, Russian forces entered Georgia as Georgian forces retreated. Both sides agreed to a ceasefire on August 16, following international mediation, although Russian troops remained in Georgia for months afterwards.
On Wednesday, Saakashvili lashed out at Russia, saying Moscow was still trying to strongarm Georgia into dropping its ambitions to join NATO and the European Union.
“If the Georgian nation wants to say no to its territory and future development… then there are certain possibilities with Russia,” Saakashvili said in a television interview.
“Otherwise, is a lamb able to negotiate with a wolf?” said Saakashvili, whose second and last term as president ends this autumn.
Last October, Saakashvili’s United National Movement party lost out in parliamentary elections to a coalition headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who disagrees with Saakashvili’s foreign policies.
Medvedev said Russia was “hearing” the change of tone in Tbilisi but that any moves to improve ties faced major obstacles. Russia recognises South Ossetia as an independent republic, troops remain stationed in South Ossetia and tensions remain high on the de facto border.