|GEORGIA: PRESIDENT SAAKASHVILI DENIES THAT WASHINGTON GAVE OK FOR SOUTH OSSETIAN MILITARY|
|December 01, 2008|
Days after a stinging public attack from a former ally, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili testified about his course of action during the August war with Russia. Saakashvili emphatically denied an earlier allegation that he had received a thumbs-up from Washington to use force in South Ossetia.
"We didn’t invade this territory [South Ossetia] as our antagonists are prone to say -- a country can’t invade its own territory -- rather, we fought to repel foreign intervention," Saakashvili said during five hours of testimony on November 28 before a parliamentary commission that is looking into the cause of the August war.
The commission’s televised hearings have become center stage for an increasingly vociferous debate about the truth behind what led to the August 8-12 war with Russia. Senior government officials and generals have already taken turns explaining their actions, but the testimony attracted scant attention among ordinary Georgians until the November 25 testimony by the former Georgian ambassador to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili.
In an account that mostly dovetailed with Moscow’s official version of the August events, Kitsmarishvili, who served as ambassador from February to September 2008, claimed that Saakashvili’s administration had harbored plans to recapture the breakaway territory of South Ossetia since 2004. Kitsmarishvili claimed that the plan came into realization after efforts to "buy" the territory from Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti fell through.
Kitsmarishvili claimed that Tbilisi snubbed Moscow’s efforts to trade South Ossetia "in exchange for something." Instead, he said, Tbilisi increasingly considered the military option that was advocated by Saakashvili’s erstwhile ally, former defense minister Irakly Okruashvili, who had allegedly held talks with Kokoiti in an attempt to secure the earlier deal. Okruashvili is now living in exile in France and could not be reached for comment. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Citing an unnamed Saakashvili aide, Kitsmarishvili said that the president decided to use force once he felt that such an action had American support. Kitsmarishvili claimed that he spoke with US Ambassador to Georgia John Teft about the claim, who, he said, categorically denied that Washington ever signaled its approval of sending Georgian troops into South Ossetia.
After an angry outburst from most commission members, including Saakashvili loyalist Givi Targamadze, who threw a pen in the ambassador’s direction, Kitsmarishvili walked out of the commission.
On November 28, Saakashvili described his former ambassador’s statement as "nonsensical" and countered that Kitsmarishvili was never privy to strategic decision-making. He went on to repeat earlier statements that Russia had been massing its forces in and near South Ossetia, and biding its time to invade Georgia.
"The war didn’t start in August. In a broader sense, it has been going on for years," Saakashvili told commission members. "In August, Moscow decided to move into an active phase, and put an end to this matter."
Kitsmarishvili twice played a pivotal role in Saakashvili’s career. He founded the Rustavi-2 television channel that was fiercely critical of ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze and helped spark street protests against his rule during the 2003 Rose Revolution. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Earlier this year, Kitsmarishvili acted as a public relations advisor for the Saakashvili re-election campaign.
A storm has been brewing since Kitsmarishvili’s dismissal in mid-September, allegedly for unsatisfactory performance. The onetime media owner responded to government criticism with a series of charges about the Saakashvili administration’s inept handling of the war with Russia.
Rustavi-2 itself has become the second front in this struggle. At a November 26 news conference, Kitsmarishvili claimed that Saakashvili had assumed control over the influential television station. The charge, frequently repeated by opposition politicians, has never been substantiated.
Kitsmarishvili, however, has pledged to sue Saakashvili and "demand the return of my share in the television station." GeoMedia Group, a largely unknown organization registered in the Marshall Islands, holds a 40 percent stake in Rustavi-2, according to National Communications Commission. The Georgian Industrial Group, a company with family ties to former Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, and Rustavi-2 General Director Irakli Chikovani each own 30 percent of the company.
Saakashvili did not directly address the allegations in his testimony, instead spending most of his time denying Kitsmarishvili’s allegations about various administration failings.
Opposition members without seats in parliament -- among the most vocal of Georgia’s scattered government critics -- have claimed that the commission’s work is a PR stunt. They see the commission’s four opposition members, including its chairman, parliamentarian Paata Davitaia, as tacitly cooperating with Saakashvili, an impression furthered by the harsh response to Kitsmarishvili’s testimony.
"We have all seen that the commission is a farce," declared Eka Beselia, a lawyer, and member of the United Opposition Movement, in a November 26 interview on pro-opposition Kavkasia television station. "Saakashvili is just pretending he is doing his homework in democratization in response to criticism from his Western partners."
In November 28 remarks to foreign reporters, Saakashvili commented that the commission’s questioning "makes us stronger."
The Georgian media’s coverage of the allegations against him, he said, speaking in English, "is full of gossips and rumors, full of unbelievable stupidity, but I had to answer to that."
Editor's Note: Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.
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