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Russo-Georgian War: Recognition

On August 12, ten years ago, when Georgia’s final defeat by Russian troops was near, a hastily negotiated ceasefire agreement between French President Nikolas Sarkozy acting on behalf of the EU and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was drafted. The Americans and Europeans recognized time was running out if they wanted to prevent the Russian capture of Tbilisi with all its ramifications. Therefore, three aims were in the background of the proposals to Russia, according to  Ronald D. Asmus, author of the book “A little war that shook the world”:  1) preventing regime change by Russia, 2) its return to pre-conflict military status quo, and 3) to prevent the crisis escalating into a broader “West vs Russia” confrontation, “ensuring that this did not become a precursor for moves against other neighbours”.

During the previous day it became clear Medvedev was willing to the first two points, although they were clearly still on the table as far as Russian leadership concerned when Sarkozy arrived in Moscow just before lunch time. Putin joined the conversation and demanded the departure of Saakashvili by saying the much cited “I want to hang [him] by the balls”. The same day, Foreign Minister Lavrov repeated the demand in less physical terms. The second aim of the negotiations was challenged by Russian demands of a security zone effectively giving Russia control over crucial infrastructure in Georgia such as the Military Highway to Russia, and the East-West Highway, cutting off Tbilisi from the west of the country.

It took another 10 hours to finally reach agreement in the shape of the well-known six point ceasefire agreement. It was thanks to French persistence on the principle of inviolability of borders in post-Cold War Europe and the potential diplomatic fallout for the EU in case of failure, the negotiations could last until the very end. Being on the weak side of the negotiation table however, the French decided to focus on immediate short term results: ending the hostilities, preventing a Russian conquest of Tbilisi and an occupation of the entire Georgian territory. Having done so, the agreement was celebrated as a victory for Sarkozy and the EU. But not all agree. Foreign policy export on East Europe, Marcel H Van Herpen, wrote in his assessment on Sarkozy’s foreign policy:

“As acting EU President, he actively interfered in the resolution of the conflict and negotiated “six principles” with Medvedev. Sarkozy’s intentions were certainly sincere, but the elaboration of the cease-fire which gave the Russian troops the right “to implement additional security measures” and thereby the right to stay in mainland Georgia, was amateurish, and even naïve. The same was true for not insisting upon the territorial integrity of Georgia to be included in the text. Later, when Russia did not fully implement these flawed six principles, and violated international law by unilaterally recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there were no firm French protests.”

In effect clause 5 of the agreement criticized above gave Russia a free hand to establish facts on the ground regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it did, “prior to the establishment of international mechanisms” such as the EU Monitoring Mission and  Geneva International Discussions, both since October 2008.

During the subsequent press conference late in the evening of August the 12th, Medvedev was put on the spot when asked why territorial integrity of Georgia was not part of the ceasefire agreement and whether he recognized Georgia’s territorial integrity. The Russian President ducked the question initially while Sarkozy, mentioning the importance of Georgia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity in his remarks, came to the rescue of Medvedev, saying the agreement’s prime aim was restoring peace. Medvedev walked away wavering the significance of territorial integrity. To this day Russia formally recognizes the six-point ceasefire agreement, but does not live up to it, for example by actively extracting both South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions from Georgia and including it in its own security structures.

One of the conditions for Sarkozy to travel to Moscow for the ceasefire negotiations was Russia’s pledge to cessation of hostilities and refraining from attempts to take Tbilisi. Just before Sarkozy arrived in Moscow, Medvedev indeed ordered his troops to stop the military operation, but not before the military launched at least three SS-26 Iskander missiles with cluster munition towards undisputed Georgian towns. The centre of Gori, just 20km away from the South Ossetian ABL and conflict zone, was one of the targets.

By the morning of August the 12th the town was nearly deserted: most civilians had left Gori fearing a Russian offensive, and the Georgian forces from the military base outside of town were called away in near panic the day before to the defence of Tbilisi. In other words, there was no military urgency to fire a ballistic missile with cluster munition on an unambiguous civilian target. The missile hit the central square in Gori killing 11 Georgian civilians, a Dutch cameraman, Stan Storimans, and injuring some 30 people including foreign journalists, making this a war crime.

Until today the Russian government is denying any involvement in the incident, despite the huge amount of compelling evidence to the contrary. The Dutch government sent an investigative team as soon as possible, at the end of the August 2008. The report released in October 2008 concluded the victims suffered from “anti-personnel sub-munition released by a cluster weapon […] propelled by a tactical ballistic rocket of the type SS-26 from the Russian federation”.

During a sensitive state visit of President Medvedev to the Netherlands in April 2009, he dismisses the Dutch investigation and conclusion, saying the “perpetrators should be found in Georgia”.  In light of the more recent MH17 experience one could determine a pattern. Russia announced its own investigation. Without producing anything, President Putin said in summer 2013, when visiting the Netherlands, he considers the case closed, probably tired of being confronted with the case by Dutch diplomats and media at just about every opportunity. RTL4 correspondent Jeroen Akkermans, who was with Storimans in Gori, comments today in a memorial blog “As if the only suspects of a war crime can decide for themselves when prosecution is no longer an issue.” Also, 2013 marked a souring of relations between Russia and Netherlands during a string of events.

Over the years Russia has both frustrated investigative efforts and has actively pulled smokescreens offering “alternative narratives”, in the tradition we have come to know the Kremlin, unfortunately. Nevertheless, aforementioned Jeroen Akkermans hasn’t stopped his efforts to get justice done in honour of his friend and colleague, and is cooperating with the Georgian authorities in the case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. He released a documentary in 2009, and just today a follow up documentary will premier on tv, in recognition of the casualties of Russian aggression in Gori. A recognition and responsibility that Russia is walking away from.

Just as Russia has refused to act according  to the principles and spirit laid out in the six point ceasefire agreement. A matter of recognition. Or lack thereof.



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