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Georgia: Ex-Envoy Slams President

Former ambassador publicly accuses Georgian leadership of recklessness in war with Russia.
By Mikhail Vignansky
Explosive allegations against Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili by his former ambassador in Moscow have raised the stakes in the debate about Georgian official culpability in the August war over South Ossetia.



Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s last ambassador in Moscow, was testifying on November 25 before the parliamentary commission investigating the five-day war with Russia that began on August 7. Kitsmarishvili left his post in September and has now gone into opposition.



The parliamentary commission was formed in October and is supposed to finish work on November 28 by hearing President Saakashvili himself. It will then present its findings in December.



The public is so far sceptical about the worth of the commission. In a survey conducted by Kviris Palitra newspaper, only 12.3 per cent of 413 respondents said they trusted its work, while 46.4 per cent expressed a negative opinion.



Before Kitsmarishvili spoke, the tone of the hearings had been very smooth, with Georgian officials only occasionally admitting certain mistakes and putting the blame for the start of the conflict almost exclusively on Russia.



No Georgian security officials have been sacked for the role they played in the August conflict. Chief of the joint staff in the army Zaza Gogava for example, despite admitting to errors in the military defeat to Russia, has been given a new job as head of the border police.



This all changed with the intervention of Kitsmarishvili, 44, better known as the former owner of Rustavi-2 television, which was the mouthpiece of the opposition during the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power.



Kitsmarishvili’s most damaging allegation was that Saakashvili had been on the verge of a military operation against Abkhazia this spring. He said that on the way back from an informal CIS summit in Russia in February 2008, the president had announced plans to move the capital of Georgia to the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi in August – suggesting that he hoped to have regained control of the breakaway republic by that date. He named three other people who were present at the conversation: deputy foreign minister Grigol Vashadze, foreign intelligence chief Gela Bezhuashvili and economic development Ekaterina Sharashidze.



Kitsmarishvili said that he understood in April that Saakashvili was discussing an operation against Abkhazia for which he believed he had US backing. He related that Defence Minister David Kezerashvili said the army was stronger than ever before and had been well-trained by Israeli instructors. The operation was due to take place before snow melted on the mountain-passes in May. But then the authorities changed their mind.



The former ambassador also said that in August Russian and Abkhaz forces were planning an operation to “clean out” the Upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia then under Georgian control. The operation eventually took place on August 12 after the war with South Ossetia had already begun, with the Abkhaz taking full possession of the gorge.



Kitsmarishvili began working as an ambassador in Moscow in the middle of May but was recalled on July 10 before he could present his credentials. He said that even in the short period in which he worked in Moscow, it was possible to prevent the August conflict. He said that the head of the Russian presidential administration Sergei Naryshkin was planning to come to Georgia in mid-July to arrange a meeting between President Dmitry Medvedev and Saakashvili but the trip never took place because the Georgian side was not ready for dialogue.



On July 21, he went on, Saakashvili met another Medvedev emissary (whose name he did not give) in the Georgian Black Sea town of Batumi.



“Soon after that meeting Saakashvili got ready to go to Italy, to South Tirol where he was planning to lose weight in a special clinic. Then Saakashvili was supposed to fly to the Olympics in Beijing. I thought that we would avoid the crisis,” he said.



However, Kitsmarishvili said that on the way back from the meeting in Batumi he saw a lot of military vehicles on the road to Tbilisi near South Ossetia and thought that Tbilisi was behaving “senselessly” in South Ossetia and that Russia had anticipated this.



Kitsmarishvili’s testimony provoked a furious response from parliamentarians. The head of the commission, opposition deputy Paata Davitaya, accused him of “staging a farce” and of being politically biased. Davitaya said he would appeal to the prosecutor general to examine his “unprofessional work” as ambassador to Russia.



“A lot of what I saw and heard was shocking,” said political analyst Georgy Khukhashvili. “I have the impression that the current leadership is experiencing a serious crisis. At the same time, the commission discredited itself in the eyes of the public even more.”



The Georgian opposition has called for an alternative commission to be set up.



The authorities have rejected Kitsmarishvili’s version of events. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili who addressed the commission on the following day said that important strategic issues had not been discussed with the ambassador to Russia and that they merely “heard the latest jokes from Moscow” from him.



Merabishvili said that Russia had been preparing for war with Tbilisi in August and had ultimately sent 40,000 troops and 3,000 armoured vehicles into Georgia. He said that supposed Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia had taken part in the conflict.



“In 80 per cent of cases peacekeepers took part in operations,” said Merabishvili.



Kitsmarishvili is the only Georgian official who has so far said that it was possible to avoid war in August. “We had a really good chance of not getting dragged into what eventually happened,” he said. “We could have moved in the opposite direction.



“We don’t have the right to build a ‘Berlin Wall’ between the Russian and Georgian peoples, especially when a million of our current and former citizens are living in Russia.



“We have to call a spade a spade. We should condemn people who committed these actions which produced these results. The Georgian people should know the truth about this war. Without that we won’t have the moral right to say to the Abkhaz and Ossetians that we can live in a common home called Georgia.”



The former ambassador also called on Saakashvili to “confess publicly that in his four remaining years in power he cannot return Abkhazia and South Ossetia”.



“Then he ought to seek forgiveness with the refugees. And then it’s up to the people to decide how to live further,” he said.



This is not expected to be the last broadside from the former ambassador who is now planning to write a book about the activities of the Georgian political elite.



Mikhail Vignansky is Tbilisi correspondent for Vremya Novostei newspaper.