World News

Georgia the main loser from EU war report

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The findings of a long-awaited EU report on last year’s Georgia-Russia war are likely to hurt Tbilisi more than Moscow.

Both sides were quick to claim the report justified their own interpretations of the five-day war. Moscow focussed on the finding that Georgia began hostilities while Tbilisi preferred the finding that months of provocation preceded the war.

But the phrase most likely to resonate is the comment by Heidi Tagliavini, head of the fact-finding mission, that “it was Georgia which triggered off the war when it attacked Tskhinvali with heavy artillery on the night of 7 to 8 August 2008.”

Generally compliant domestic television channels will ensure that viewers in both Georgia and Russia see only their respective governments’ spin on the report.

But the international implications of the findings will be harder to control -- and these tend to favour Russia.

The mission firmly rejected the main justification for the attack offered by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, saying flatly that “there was no massive Russian military invasion under way, which had to be stopped by Georgian military forces shelling Tskhinvali.”

Damaged abroad, Saakashvili has survived months of opposition protests at home.

He is unlikely to face a fresh challenge because his foes are divided and the country is united in a desire to see Russian troops leave the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But overseas, Tbilisi’s carefully nurtured image of a pro-Western democracy pursuing NATO and EU membership lies in tatters.

Moscow, which has never promoted itself globally as a paragon of human rights and democracy, has no such problem.

Saakashvili had traded on a personal friendship with former U.S. leader George W. Bush and some of his officials to pursue a close alliance with the West, confident that he could weather Russia’s anger at his stance with Washington’s support.

That policy has now left Georgia looking isolated.

The United States has already decided to drop many of its quarrels with Moscow, hoping that a “reset” on relations will allow progress on a wide range of international issues -- from Afghanistan to Iran -- where it needs Russia’s cooperation.

Promoting Georgia’s interests against those of Russia is no longer such a high priority for Washington.

Officials in Tbilisi have already noticed with concern that while President Barack Obama visited Moscow in July, he sent only Vice-President Joe Biden to Georgia.

After last year’s war, it was Bush’s trusted confidante Condoleezza Rice who flew to Tbilisi to show support for Saakashvili while senior U.S. officials temporarily halted visits to Moscow.

Leading European Union members France, Germany and Italy are all now pursuing lucrative business and trade deals with Russia. They will find the report has given them another reason not to argue with Moscow over the war.

Russia took a public relations drubbing last year when many Western media labelled it the aggressor as its tanks rumbled under the mountains into South Ossetia and its planes struck military targets around Tbilisi.

But the report’s finding that Moscow’s initial military response to the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali was justified will embolden the Kremlin to continue its hard line against what it terms the “Saakashvili regime.”

The Kremlin will find it easy to shrug off criticism that its subsequent military operation went too far, or that the Russian military failed to stop atrocities.

The findings will make no difference inside Russia, where domestic media insisted from the start that the conflict was a crusade to save threatened Russian lives from Georgian genocide -- an argument the report dismissed.

With Russia feeling bolder, Georgia short of friends and tension running high along the South Ossetia-Georgia border, the risk of fresh conflict remains high - a point the report emphasises.

Hawks in Moscow are still smarting from the Kremlin’s decision to turn back its tanks short of Tbilisi during last year’s war and itch to resolve “unfinished business” -- code for the overthrow of Saakashvili.

Editing by Ralph Boulton