President Saakashvili said in a lengthy televised speech that Russia and the west’s muted reaction were to blame for the current crisis.
Saakashvili was speaking at a meeting with a group of lawmakers, both those from his ruling National Movement Party and the parliamentary minority, late on August 24.
His speech, which lasted for over an hour and was aired live on Georgian television, was an attempt to explain to the Georgian public what led to the armed conflict with Russia.
For the past two weeks President Saakashvili has used western media extensively, appearing almost daily on international TV networks to shape public opinion abroad. His extensive televised speech at the meeting with the lawmakers was his first comprehensive attempt to shape domestic opinion. The speech comes in the face of expected “tough questions” that some politicians, including ex-parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, have warned they will raise.
He started his speech by thanking lawmakers, including those from the parliamentary minority, for demonstrating unity against the background of Russian occupation.
“It was the moment when lustration happened,” he said. “There is no need for a law on lustration any more. Just look at what was said by whom [referring to politicians’ statements] and who was giving interviews to the Russian media in recent days and everything will become clear…. Our unity is a gallows for our enemy… We will overcome this misfortune if we remain united.”
Saakashvili then recounted major events in the relationship with Russia, starting from the very first days of his presidency in early 2004, when, he said, he tried to build constructive relations with Russia.
“From the very first day of my presidency I paid a visit to Russia. I thought it was a very good meeting with Putin and we had very frank talks. The first thing he asked me was to strengthen the border.”
He said that Russians were especially concerned about the situation in Pankisi gorge, a north-eastern mountainous area in Georgia close to the Russian border, and about illegal cross-border movement at the Chechen section of the border.
“I want to acknowledge that we really helped Russians in this. We stopped arms trafficking and [illegal] cross-border movements,” Saakashvili said. “We put in place a key element required [for the Russians] to establish order.” [Also on this matter: http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=6258]
Saakashvili then recalled 2004 events in Adjara, when Aslan Abashidze, ex-leader of the Autonomous Republic, was forced to flee to Russia. Saakashvili said that Russia, and in particular then Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, Igor Ivanov, had failed to play a positive role.
“But despite this, next day [after Abashidze had fled overnight on May 6] I phoned President Putin – out of politeness – and thanked him for accepting developments in Adjara with understanding,” Saakashvili said.
“I remember that conversation very well; in response to my polite remarks, he said roughly: ‘Now remember, in Adjara we did not intervene, but you won’t have any gifts from us in South Ossetia or Abkhazia.’ That’s what he said to me.”
Saakashvili continued, talking about “a series of provocations” in breakaway South Ossetia, leading to the clashes in summer, 2004.
He said that since then, Russia, which was in direct control of the situation on the ground in Tskhinvali, was preventing any attempt at direct talks with the local community in South Ossetia.
“The first major blow for Georgia came in January 2006 when a power line and gas pipelines were exploded,” Saakashvili said.
He said that in the course of 2006 Russian intelligence “started getting very active,” by, among other things, he said, financing “Giorgadze’s groups,” and staging a series of terrorist acts. one of which happened in the town of Gori, when a blast killed three policemen and injured 27 other people.
Saakashvili recalled that Georgia arrested Roman Boiko, a Russian military intelligence operative, according to the president, for masterminding the Gori blast. “But the Russians asked us to quietly release him [Boiko] and to forget the incident… We handed him over to Russia, hoping that Russia would appreciate it,” Saakashvili said. “Now I think it was a mistake.”
After that incident, Russian intelligence, Saakashvili said, stepped up their activities in Georgia.
“And as a result we were forced to demonstratively arrest several of their military intelligence operatives,” he said, adding that Russia responded by extending an already existing economic embargo on Georgia.
“But they failed to achieve their goal through this economic embargo; people did not come out onto the streets and did not overthrow the government,” Saakashvili said.
Then he recalled the November 2007 events, but only spoke briefly about them, saying that he did not think that “every participant in those events was cooperating” with Russia.
He, however, said that the Georgian authorities possessed information passed on by “western intelligence services,” according to which, he said, just before the November events two Russian criminal bosses, one of them Vyacheslav Ivankov, with the nickname Yaponchik, “who has close links with the Russian leadership,” visited Georgia and Armenia. “They were discussing various scenarios of regime change in Georgia,” Saakashvili said.
A military intervention was the only option left for Russia to overthrow the government in Georgia, after all other options had failed to produce results, Saakashvili said.
“I suppose that Russia started thinking about military intervention in Georgia sometime in 2007,” he said. “[In July 2007] Russia announced a withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, limiting military forces in [Europe] and the Caucasus.”
Up to 3,000 Russian armored vehicles of various types had rolled into Georgia, he said.
“We had only 200 tanks, because we had no right to have more, in accordance with the treaty; Russia brushed off its commitments by withdrawing from the treaty,” Saakashvili said.
He then once again criticized “western partners” for not paying enough attention to this move by Russia.
“It was obvious that they would not need 3,000 tanks for Chechnya in 2007. I was telling this to many western partners: just look what Russia is doing; it is simply concentrating military hardware on the Georgian border. Was that not a signal that something was being prepared?” he said.
Saakashvili then recalled then-President Putin’s visit to Dagestan in the North Caucasus in February 2008 and his remarks made there, when he instructed the Russian authorities to reconstruct the road leading from Dagestan to Georgia’s Kakheti region. The only legal land road between Georgia and Russia was closed by Moscow in 2006.
“Shouldn't these remarks by Putin have been a wake-up call for the world?” Saakashvili asked. “These remarks were aired by strictly censored Russian television, meaning that he [Putin] wanted the world to hear this.”
“But there was zero reaction from the world,” he said.
He also slammed the EU’s reaction to Russia’s admission of violating Georgian airspace in July.
“This admission by Russia was a clear sign that they were testing western reaction,” Saakashvili said. “It took six days for the EU to make a statement about it and the statement was just saying: we call on both sides to refrain from provocations. It was in fact inviting Russia to do something else, because [the EU statement] amounted to saying: we are not interfering in this matter. That was a very alarming reaction that led to what then happened.”
Saakashvili also said that there was again international silence when Russian forces started military exercises in the North Caucasus, practicing “peace enforcement in Georgia.”
“They [Russia] were saying it publicly, deliberately to see what kind of reaction it would have; but it was silence again; zero [international] reaction,” Saakashvili said.
He also said that when he warned western leaders about possible Russian military intervention, they, he said, “thought I was exaggerating.”
In February 2008, Saakashvili said, he met Putin. The president said he came away from the meeting with the impression that “Russia was threatening us with war.”
Then came the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, he said, “which made a strategic mistake.”
“Instead of giving us NATO membership action plan [MAP], they [NATO] said: we are not giving MAP to Georgia because there are conflicts, but we will get return to this issue in December,” Saakashvili said. “Saying this amounted to telling Russia: do something before December, otherwise in December Georgia may get MAP.”
He said that Georgia was limited in options. “Saying no to NATO would not have given us any guarantee,” he said.
Saakashvili said that he had explained to western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President George W. Bush, that Russia’s decision to repair railway infrastructure in breakaway Abkhazia’s Ochamchire district was designed to facilitate the the movement of troops and military hardware for intervention in Georgia.
He then confirmed for the first time reports that he had proposed to Russia to divide Abkhazia into spheres of influence.
“I tried to somehow negotiate with Russia,” Saakashvili said. “I sent a letter to the Russian president [Dmitry Medvedev] telling him: let’s negotiate; your peacekeepers are clearly illegitimate and let’s agree on the following: the area up to Kodori river, incorporating Gali and Ochamchire districts [of Abkhazia] are almost empty and people don't live there; let’s return displaced persons in the first stage to those areas; move your peacekeepers to the Kodori river and we are ready to sign a new agreement through which Georgia’s territorial integrity will be protected, but your interests will also be taken into account.”
“If Russia really wanted to avert war, they would have agreed to such a good proposal for them; they in fact, with this proposal, were getting protection for their economic interests and somehow legalizing their presence [in Abkhazia] with our consent, and on the other hand, we also were benefiting, because we would have begun the return of people and economic projects,” Saakashvili said.
Russia’s response, he continued, apparently written by the Foreign Ministry, however, amounted “to making fun of us.”
“The response said that at this stage it was too early to speak about the return of displaced persons to Abkhazia,” he said.
Saakashvili also said that his first meeting with Medvedev in June in St. Petersburg was “very good.”
At the next meeting with Medvedev in Astana in July, however, he said, the Russian president’s “stance was totally changed.”
“It was clear that some other forces had come into play,” he said. “He [Medvedev] started to push for new conditions, like an immediate pull-back from upper Kodori gorge - a demand that was totally impossible to fulfill. So it was clear that they were not willing to negotiate. So I had the impression after that meeting that he [Medvedev] knew something, which I did not know… I was in a gloomy mood after that meeting, because it was clear that they [Russia] were preparing for something bad.”
Saakashvili said that the Georgian authorities had expected a Russia’s attack from Abkhazia, rather than from South Ossetia, “so major forces” of the Georgian army were deployed in the west.
He said that as the situation started to deteriorate on August 7, “we moved one brigade [of the Georgian armed forces] closer to South Ossetia, and later another [brigade] as well.”
“But our major forces were still deployed in the west; there was a brigade at Senaki [a military base] and we did not call back our brigade from Iraq, because I was deeply convinced up to the last minute that Russia would not engage in such a large-scale provocation,” Saakashvili said.
“Although we were under fire from 120mm mortar launchers, I announced a unilateral ceasefire; at that time we already had one dead soldier in the village of Avnevi and four others were wounded; [Georgian Defense Minister Davit] Kezerashvili was begging me to let him open artillery fire, because, he was telling me, otherwise he was unable to bring [the wounded soldiers] from [the village]. But my response was that we could not open fire whatever happened,” Saakashvili said.
He said that the Georgian side had tried to communicate with the Russian authorities, but they responded by saying they no longer controlled the South Ossetian separatist authorities and their militiamen.
He said that information came in late on August 7 that Russian military hardware was rolling through Roki Tunnel into South Ossetia. He said that Georgia, in observation of existing agreements, had no heavy arms in the Georgian-controlled areas of the breakaway region.
“So the only way to stop their [Russian forces and South Ossetian militias] movement into Georgian villages was to use medium-size artillery for blowing up the bridge at Didi Gupta and for [closing] the road coming from Roki Tunnel… So as soon as they [the Russian tanks] started to roll into South Ossetia we started firing on the road [at Roki Tunnel]; at the same time we were responding to fire coming from the South Ossetian positions including from the center of Tskhinvali, their government headquarters and from their Defense Ministry,” he said.
Saakashvili also said that he “strictly ordered” not to fire on the civilian population and “this order was fully observed.”
“We conducted our first flight [apparently SU-25 warplanes] at dawn [August 8] in the direction of Java and Roki Tunnel and our pilots informed us that the whole area was full of Russian military,” he said, adding that it was impossible for such a large number of Russian soldiers to concentrate in the area so quickly overnight.
The comment is apparently a rebuttal to Russian claims that they had sent troops into South Ossetia only after Georgian forces started to attack Tskhinvali.
“If someone thinks that it was Georgia that triggered what happened, he should understand how [the Russians] were able to bring in such a large army in a matter of hours; this is unreal,” Saakashvili said.
He also claimed that the Russian army had infiltration into South Ossetia before the conflict had even started. Not noticing it was “a failure of international intelligence services.”
“When we ask our western partners: didn't you see them coming, they respond that their satellites were directed mainly on Iraq and that they could not fly over [Georgia], but it was impossible to see what was happening on the ground because it was cloudy. So it was a serious failure of international intelligence services; they would not have hidden this information from us, if they had known it; but they also did not know it,” he said.
He also said that Georgian artillery had destroyed “a large part of this Russian military in Java during the early stage of the conflict.
“The 4th brigade and the military unit from Kojori destroyed hundreds of soldiers… and Gen. [Anatoly] Khrulev [the commander of Russia’s 58th army] was wounded. After that Putin arrived in Vladikavkaz, mobilized all forces and all Russian forces moved towards Georgia… the Russians conducted 200 combat flights” Saakashvili said.
“We managed to stop them on the first day; on the second day and on the third day 500 more armored vehicles started moving into Georgia [through Roki Tunnel],” he added.
He then justified the withdrawal of Georgian forces from South Ossetia and adjacent areas, saying that it would have been impossible to stop the additional 500 units of Russian armored vehicles, and Georgian troops were at risk of “destruction.”
“So we took that decision [to pull back]; this was the time when the world started waking up,” Saakashvili said. “One hour after President Bush’s statement, [Russian] tanks stopped rolling [in the direction of Tbilisi].”
He said that Georgian soldiers “fought hard.” He acknowledged, however, that “there could have been some mistakes in planning.”
At the end of his speech, Saakashvili said that Russia’s goal was “to collapse the Georgian economy; to trigger chaos and as a result to put an end to Georgian statehood.”
“Our goal is to overcome [the economic] crisis; it will take three or four months; it won’t be easy, but we will overcome this heavy crisis in three or four months and in the next year or year and a half Georgia’s economy will again start to grow rapidly,” Saakashvili said.
“The main thing we have gained from everything that happened is that our position has been strengthened. Until now, foreigners had been telling us: negotiate yourself [over conflict settlement]; we have no time for you; now it is a problem for the world,” he added.