Georgia: Surprised by War?

I'm here in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, working on a larger project that is looking at the ways in which Russia deals with internal conflict issues. Georgia's two hot spots, the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have both attracted a great deal of (almost neo-colonial, some say) support from Moscow in recent years and Georgia has increasingly been referring to their separatist conflicts as being directed by Russia, who use the Abkhaz or South Ossetian de facto governments as pawns.

The main thrust of my reporting here has been Abkhazia, which until just a few days ago looked to be the more dangerous of the two so-called 'frozen conflicts'. Recent gunfights in the Kodori Valley in Northeastern Abkhazia and a fatal bombing in the bordering Abkhaz town of Gali last month had many thinking that if was was gong to start, it was going to be there.

Then fighting broke out in South Ossetia a week ago today, skirmishes and shelling intensifying between
Georgian troops and fighters on the South Ossetia side. Early this week, I was scheduled to visit the Kodori Valley with the Deputy Minister of the Interior but, upon reading of the fighting in South Ossetia, I reckoned the trip would be called off. Instead, my host arrived in the town of Zugdidi, near the Abkhaz border, ready to go, dismissing the clashes as minor. So off we went, driven by armed troops, to have a look at what the conventional wisdom would have predicted would be the flashpoint for a new Caucasus war, or a war between Georgia and Russia.

While we were in Kodori, things in Ossetia escalated. On our drive back (10 hours long and hair raising), the Deputy Minster fielded an unending series of calls from the press, many of them Russians with accusations of Georgian aggression in South Ossetia. But he still seemed to brush it all off. He told us the Russian press was simply re-hashing old news. At the end of the long drive he deposited us at the door of Georgian President Saakashvili's residence, where we were to meet him for an 11pm interview. This was Wednesday night.

President Saakashvili did not seem all that concerned about escalating violence in South Ossetia either, at the time. He'd agreed to talk with us about Abkhazia, and had squeezed us in for a late night session before he was about to jet off to Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Of course we learned the next day that he never left. Instead he went to Gori, near the South Ossetian border, and declared a unilateral cease fire. It would only last 6 hours. At a press conference today he claimed intelligence of an advancing Russian armored column that he received at midnight convinced him an all out assault was required to repel the oncoming Russians. Today, while filming the war room set up at the Interior Ministry headquarters, I caught a glimpse of the Deputy Minster that had brought me to Kodori. His face was ashen and it looked as it he hadn't slept a wink since he dropped me off at the President's two nights earlier. One of his aides was crying.

Accusations have been launched from both sides that the other is using the Olympics as cover for launching a premeditated attack (The Ossetians accuse the Georgians, the Georgians accuse the Russians). President Saakashvili referred to the "specifically designed timing for this provocation". Looking back it is hard for me to imagine the Georgians cooking this one up (not that I'm suggesting the Russians did, either). A key Deputy Minister was off in Kodori taking journalists on a look-see. The President was about to fly out to Beijing. We also heard that the President's closest adviser was on holiday in Greece. This does not seem to be the makings of a long planned offensive. It could very well be that the Georgians are as surprised by the sudden onset of this conflict as this journalist!