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EU capital faces Georgia and Russia propaganda campaign

LEIGH PHILLIPS

30.08.2008 @ 17:02 CET

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The guns may have fallen silent in Georgia but the propaganda war on who started the conflict has just begun, with Russia and Georgia each selling their side of the story to diplomats, MEPs and media in Brussels.

Over the past three weeks, the EU capital has been flooded with various timelines of events, differing body counts, tallies of the wounded and calculations of the number of refugees, as both parties try to rubbish each other's bloody arithmetic.

Russian soldiers on the streets of Tskhinvali after the war (Photo: wikipedia)

EU diplomats refuse to discuss - publicly - who struck first, preferring to focus on Russia's subsequent actions and delivery of aid. But while most of Europe stands shocked after Russian jets bombed towns deep inside Georgia, Tbilisi's decision to attack Tshkinvali - the rebel capital of the breakaway South Ossetia region - has not gone unnoticed either.

"Most of the Western press have misunderstood what happened before the war, meaning most people think that Georgia either fell into Russia's trap or that [Georgian president] Sakaashvilli was reckless," a Georgian government advisor told EUobserver.

"Georgia only attacked Tskhinvali after Russia entered Georgian territory," he said, adding that Mr Saakashvili "had no other option" and that "in the course of the Georgian action, there were no known atrocities."

The Georgian timeline describes how from 15 July to 2 August, Russia conducted military exercises near the breakaway regions. After the manouevres (code-named "Caucasus 2008") ended, the troops were never redeployed.

Georgia also highlights a 29 July escalation in which rebels began shelling Georgian-controlled villages and the subsequent mobilisation of North Caucasus mercenaries, whom Tbilisi blames for a series of atrocities in the 1990s.

"If the Georgian attack was such a 'surprise,' as the Russians repeatedly call it," the Georgian advisor asked, "how were they able to mobilise 80,000 troops on such short notice?"

The centrepiece of the Georgian narrative is that at 23:30 local time on 7 August, the Georgian government received intelligence reports from an unnamed foreign government that some 150 Russian armoured vehicles were approaching the Roki Tunnel - the only road connecting Russia and South Ossetia.

It was only after Russian armed forces crossed into Georgian territory - at 23:50 - that Georgia attacked Tkshinvali. At 00:45 on 8 August, Georgia fired on a Russian column south of the Roki Tunnel, the Georgian advisor said.

'Blatant lie'

"This is a blatant lie," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told EUobserver in his turn, saying that Georgian military action began in mid-afternoon on 7 August not just before midnight, as the Georgians claim.

"At 14:42, Georgian officers in the joint peace-keeping headquarters [where Russian peacekeepers were also based] suddenly left, saying they were following the instructions of their capital.

"Shelling of the headquarters started thereafter and an hour later we had lost 10 Russian peacekeepers from the contingent."

The Georgian general in command of the Georgian peacekeepers, Mamuka Kurashvili, then appeared on television in the early afternoon of 7 August to announce that a military operation "to restore 'constitutional order'" had begun.

"The Georgians began shelling the capital, Tskhinvali, at 22:35, using long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers," Mr Chizhov said.

At 00:45 on 8 August, the Georgians were not firing on invading Russian forces, he added. "They were firing on a sleeping city."

Counting the dead

The day after fighting broke out, the South Ossetian separatists' leader, Eduard Kokoity, said Georgian forces killed some 1,400 people. Russia backed the figure, then spoke of 2,000 deceased civilians, repeatedly calling Georgia's actions "genocide."

The Georgians say that as of 25 August (the most recent date for which they have offered figures), 75 Georgian civilians had died as a result of Russian actions and 273 wounded. Tbilisi scorns the Russian Tskhinvali death-toll, but has not offered an alternative count.

Human Rights Watch has also questioned the Russian numbers.

"That the Russians came up with such a figure so quickly - within 48 hours - gives solid grounds to question the accuracy," the group's Rachel Denber said. "It takes a long time to gather accurate statistics on casualties, not just from hospitals, but [also] families who have buried relatives without reporting a death."

"[But] there is no doubt that the Georgian attack produced serious civilian casualties, as any indiscriminate use of force will do," she added.

As to the question of genocide, "this is perhaps the gravest crime there is," Ms Denber said. "One has to begin asking if when governments are increasingly throwing out terms like that, whether it is diminishing the meaning of the word."

EU on message

European capitals don't want to talk about who started the war, turning attention to the aid effort and saying Russia has failed to adhere to the six-point ceasefire plan it agreed with France and Georgia.

"Who started the conflict is not an easy question with an easy answer," the spokesperson for the German mission to the EU, Ricklef Beutin, said. "It's up for historians to decide," the spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rob Dekker, indicated. Spain "cannot take a concrete position" on the matter, a Spanish diplomat added.

But one EU diplomat privately blamed Georgia for the mess.

"Of course it was Georgia that started it, and the dialogue we have with Georgia will have to include this," the contact said, explaining that the EU is keeping silent on the matter so as not to diffuse its message on Russia's subsequent actions.

"We need to send a very strong message to Russia that what they did is not OK. On that, we're all very unified. That's got to be the focus."