Vano Merabishvili, the Georgian Interior Minister told the parliamentary commission studying the August war, that only in case of international pressure on Russia it would have been possible to avert the war.
Responding to allegation voiced by Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former ambassador to Russia, in his testimony before the commission on November 25, Merabishvili said he did “not consider those statements as serious.”
“No military operation was being discussed either in the Abkhazian or in the South Ossetian direction,” he said. “Kitsmarishvili has never attended any meeting [of the country’s leadership], where military-strategic issues were discussed. I did not take Kitsmarishvili’s statements seriously… to say the truth; I failed to make a serious conclusion from his statements.”
He also denied that he was the one who offered Kitsmarishvili to become Georgia’s ambassador in Moscow on November 2, 2007, as it was claimed by Kitsmarishvili himself. “I did not meet Erosi Kitsmarishvili on November 2. I remember that I met him in December and he asked me whether I was against his coming to state service. I had nothing against him then,” Merabishvili said.
The Minister started his testimony, which lasted over three hours, with a PowerPoint presentation of the events, which he said led up to the August war.
Below are key points of his testimony:
- In early May Russia said that it had increased number of its peacekeepers in Abkhazia up to 2,400; but according to the information that we possessed, the number of their troops was in fact 4,000 at that time;
- 545-strong paratroopers unit from Pskov and Novorossiysk divisions were also deployed in Abkhazia’s Ochamchire and Tkvarcheli districts;
- In April-June Russia deployed the following weapons in Abkhazia and South Ossetia: three BUK [NATO specification SA-11 Gadfly] ground-to-air air defense systems; forty D-30 howitzers, ten units of GRAD rocket launchers; up to twenty air defense guns; 120 anti-tank rockets and two Mi-24 combat helicopters; these are documented information and we think that there could have been even more weapons brought into the breakaway regions at that time;
- Russian troops in Abkhazia significantly increased number of their checkpoints;
- At least 400-strong unit of the Russian Railway Forces were deployed in late May – the move aimed at repairing the railway in Ochamchire obviously for transportation of military hardware close to the administrative border;
- SU-25 and SU-27 fighter jets were also deployed in the Bombora airfield [close to Gudauta in Abkhazia]; this process of deployment weapons and arms in Abkhazia was continuing in following weeks;
- Large-scale military exercise of the Russia’s 58th army started in North Caucasus in June – it was the largest drills in last 20 years in the region;
- Minister Merabishvili, during his presentation, showed the commission members two aerial photos of, what he said was, a military base in Tskhinvali – one shot in July, 2007 and another one in August, 2008. Merabishvili told the commission members: compare these two photos and you will see that the one taken last year shows almost empty base and the recent one shows that it is already constructed… and this construction was taking place just in front of the international observers' eyes [OSCE had its military observers based in Tskhinvali]; Merabishvili then presented two separate aerial photos of, what he said was, a military base in Java; he said that the same situation was in Java and that Russians were in hurry to construct military installations in Java as well;
- Merabishvili presented to the commission members an audio recording of two phone intercepts between the two South Ossetian militias, which is Tbilisi’s key evidence to back its claim that Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali was a response to the Russian military incursion.
- Merabishvili said: I’ve leant about this intercepts 15 minutes after the second phone conversations took place at 3:52am local time on August 7. Our employee, who was part of a mobile surveillance team based in Gori at that time and who knows Ossetian, was listening and monitoring those conversations;
- I have immediately informed the members of the National Security Council about it. I had no doubts that it was the launch of aggression;
- When asked why the Ministry produced these evidence over a month later, Merabishvili responded: the file was lost among 4,000 intercepted files after the mobile surveillance team had to pull out from Gori. We were looking for this particular recording for a long time;
- After Russian armed forces started entering Georgia via the Roki tunnel, the authorities made a decision to deploy armed forces in the conflict zone to protect the population and stop the enemy; our troops started movement in direction of either Tskhinvali or Gori about 12 hours after those phone conversations were intercepted;
- The Russian military convoy entering into South Ossetia via Roki tunnel was moving slowly; you know technical conditions of their military hardware are poor; the first Russian military convoy reached areas close to Tskhinvali at 10am local time on August 8; 19 armored vehicles were destroyed at Gupta by the Georgian bombers;
- The key goal was to stop the movement of Russian military convoy at least near Java; the second task was to evacuate peaceful population and this was impossible through the bypassing road, as it was constantly shelled; the key goal of our entering Tskhinvali was to save the residents of the Didi Liakhvi Gorge and suppress the firing positions in Tbilisi.
- I have personally seen it from the village of Nikozi, that shelling of our villages was carried out from the positions located in and around Russian peacekeepers' base in Tskhinvali;
- We had no other option at that time than to launch the operation; I think that we even were a bit late in this regard; if we would have launched the operation a day earlier the outcome could have been different; but at the same time, taking into account the scale of the Russian military intervention, even the start of the operation a day earlier by us could not have helped;
- Minimal number of troops were involved during the operation inside Tskhinvali and only several tanks were used there; mainly the interior ministry’s and the defense ministry’s special purpose units were involved in the Tskhinvali operation;
- Within hours after the launch of the operation the Georgian forces took over the South Ossetian-controlled villages and heights around Tskhinvali;
- The first Russian jet that was downed during the operation became a victim of the South Ossetian friendly fire; then the Russian television stations covered this fact as if the Georgian jet was downed;
- Up to 15 planes have been destroyed by the Georgian forces; [Zaza Gogava, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, told the commission that Georgia short down 19 Russian aircraft];
- A total of 40,000 Russian soldiers entered into the Georgian territory throughout the entire period of conflict; total of 3,000 armored vehicles of various types were involved in the operation;
- Merabishvili presented to the commission members a video showing, what he said was, launch of Tochka-U short range ballistic missiles from the Java district in direction of the Georgian town of Gori and surrounding areas. Merabishvili said that potential buyers of those missile systems from Syria and Iran were attending the launch of those rockets in Java; this launch of missiles was type of a demonstration for those potential buyers;
- On August 9-12 the Kodori Gorge was shelled, including from strategic bombers; over 600 shells fell down in the Kodori Gorge; the upper Kodori Gorge was well protected area and not a single person died there as a result of bombardments;
- But maintaining control over Kodori Gorge became impossible after the Russian troops entered into the Samegrelo region from Abkhazia besieging the upper Kodori Gorge; I took a decision and ordered the Interior Ministry forces – about 300-400 – deployed in Kodori to retreat from the area; they retreated only after the local population was evacuated from Kodori;
- Russians were ready to intervene into Georgia from other directions as well; I personally saw the Russian military convoy consisting of at least 50 armored vehicles of various types standing on the Russian side of the border at the Larsi border crossing point; the convoy was seen from the Georgian side of the border; the Russian military unit was also deployed at the Dagestani section of the Georgian-Russian border and were ready for intervention through the Dagestani-Georgian road; we have exploded that road as the chance of their intervention from that direction was higher;
- A total of about 5,000 Georgian policemen and 70 armored vehicles were involved in the military operation;
- 14 Georgian policemen were killed during the hostilities and 8 more policemen during various incidents that took place after the war in the areas close to the breakaway regions’ administrative border. 227 Interior Ministry employees were wounded during the war;
- When asked whether it was possible to avert the war, Merabishvili responded: the only way to avoid this war was more active position of the West and their pressure on Russia;
- In the beginning of August I still considered that the probability of a large-scale military confrontation stood at only 10%;
- At this point I possess no information indicating on an anti-state activity of any Georgian senior official;
- When asked if Russia had allies within Georgia, Merabishvili responded: Russia has a minimal foothold in Georgia and it has been confirmed during the war. There were people in Georgia on which Russian occupants have influence, but these events showed that Georgia is a real state; although every local resident in Borjomi and Imereti knew where our tanks were hidden, Russian have not learnt that information;
- Although small threat existed in Adjara – I mean those people who were ex-Adjarian leader Aslan Abashidze’s allies, but this minor threat was tackled immediately. Fortunately, a threat of this kind was minimal in Samtskhe-Javakheti [a region populated with a large group of ethnic Armenians];
- Russian intelligence services have intensified their operations ten fold during and after the war; their activities are obvious, especially in the so called buffer zones;
- When asked whether another Russian aggression is expected, Merabishvili responded: re-occurrence of what has already happened is less likely in the nearest future; the current Russian military presence in South Ossetia is not sufficient for carrying out a large-scale military operation, but these forces can carry out a small scale operation.