Friday, November 7, 2008

Protests and errors in Georgia

Exactly one year after riot police and tear gas broke up peaceful protests, thousands of Georgians returned to the streets of Tbilisi to demonstrate against President Mikhail Saakashvili. Like last year protestors spoke out against corruption and authoritarian tendencies within Saakashvili's government, though this year they also complained about Georgia's disastrous war in South Ossetia this past August.

The after effects of the war though were a reason that the protests were smaller than organizers hoped. Two of Georgia's main opposition parties steered clear of the demonstrations, fearing that they might be used by Russia in an attempt to undermine Saakashvili's rule. Those who did turn out though called for government reforms and early elections next spring, when they hope to vote Saakashvili out of office. While he is held up as a model of democracy by Western governments, critics in Georgia accuse Saakashvili of being the same type of autocrat that they marched against in the pro-democracy "Rose Revolution" in 2003 that brought Saakashvili to power in the first place. A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in September slammed Saakashvili for widespread irregularities during elections last May.

Meanwhile, for the first time today the US State Department called Georgia's attack against South Ossetia in August "a mistake", but added that it still did not justify Russia's actions. It is a big shift in the United States' position about the conflict, which so far as portrayed it as an outright act of Russian aggression against their smaller, democratic neighbor.

The State Department comments come on the heels of a lengthy report in Friday's New York Times that undercuts much of Georgia's version of the South Ossetian conflict. According to Georgia, they only launched their military operation in South Ossetia in response to a massive attack by Russian forces, and that widespread damage to the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali (a city of 40,000, nearly half the population of S. Ossetia) was unintentionally caused by fighting between Georgian and Russian forces.

But the Times report - based on accounts by multi-national OSCE officials in the city at the time of the attack and other local eyewitnesses - did not find any compelling evidence of a Russian attack. Instead the report suggests that much of the damage to Tskhinvali was deliberately caused by large-scale artillery and rocket bombardment by "inexperienced" Georgian forces. The Times report matches up with a BBC report last week that also had eyewitness accounts of Georgian troops deliberately attacking civilian areas of the city (including an account of a Georgian tank methodically shelling each floor of an apartment building), suggesting that the Georgian actions could be investigated as war crimes.

It is a very different view of a war that had often been described by Western media and politicians as the first shot in a new Cold War by an overly aggressive Russia.
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