Georgian PM backs inquiry into Saakashvili’s handling of Russia war

Feud heightens between president and prime minister


Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili wants his fierce rival President Mikheil Saakashvili to be questioned about his handling of the country’s 2008 war with Russia, as part of a broad investigation into a conflict that was disastrous for the Caucasus state.

The two leaders have been at loggerheads since the party formed by billionaire businessman Mr Ivanishvili surprisingly beat Mr Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in a general election last October.

The bitter mud-slinging that characterised that election campaign has given way to an uneasy cohabitation, with Mr Ivanishvili’s government stripping powers and perks from the president and prosecutors bringing charges against his former ministers and other allies.

Now Mr Ivanishvili wants Mr Saakashvili to explain what started the five-day August 2008 war with Russia and how it was conducted.

The conflict displaced some 100,000 people at its peak, did major damage to Georgian infrastructure and spooked investors. In the wake of the fighting, Russia recognised the rebel Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, and stationed troops there.

Troops sent
Mr Saakashvili has always insisted that he sent troops into South Ossetia only after Russian forces crossed into the region.

Moscow rejects this, saying it pushed into South Ossetia – where most people hold Russian passports – to halt an attempt by the Georgian military to retake control of it.

An independent report commissioned by the European Union blamed Georgia for starting the war, but said Moscow’s response – when its forces pushed deep into Georgian territory and struck targets far from South Ossetia – was disproportionate and violated international law.

‘Acted inadequately’
“The theme of the war is shrouded in mystery . . . I personally have many questions and I also think that our authorities, including the president, acted inadequately in that situation,” Mr Ivanishvili said.

“I consider it absolutely unjustified that military units were put on alert and military actions started before Russia crossed our borders . . . We must know what happened.”

Mr Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and is regularly accused by Mr Saakashvili’s supporters of doing the Kremlin’s bidding, said the president should be questioned if necessary.

“Questioning by a court is a civilised norm and . . . the president should understand this.”

Justice minister Tea Tsulukiani said Georgia should handle the investigation or risk intervention from the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague.

“We should not make this case the subject of a hearing at an international tribunal. We should tackle our problems and investigate it by ourselves in the framework of the international commitments we have undertaken,” she said.

Nugzar Tsiklauri, a senior member of Mr Saakashvili’s UNM party, claimed that “all this damages Georgia’s national interests”.

‘Political revenge’
“We are probably witnessing political revenge, an attempt to blackmail and bully the president and United National Movement,” he said.

Mr Ivanishvili rejected such complaints, insisting that a proper investigation would not damage “Georgia’s image or the image of the previous government and the president – we should live with truth and we should not be afraid if society knows the truth.”

The new government’s more pragmatic approach to relations with Russia has brought about a slight thaw, with Moscow agreeing to lift a seven-year ban on imports of Georgian wine and other products.