A former OSCE official in Georgia, whose reporting supported Russian claims about the August war’s start went AWOL, lost his job, is now under scrutiny and Georgia is accusing him of being a spy, the Wall Street Journal reported on December 19.
Ryan Grist, a 47-year-old former British army captain, who was deputy head of OSCE mission in Georgia, when the war broke out, said in interviews with some western media sources, including with the New York Times and BBC that Tbilisi’s attack on Tskhinvali on August 7 was “completely disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation.”
Grist, who acknowledged in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he went AWOL across the Russian lines after the war broke out, said in the same interview that his previous comments were over-interpreted.
“I have never said there was no provocation by the South Ossetians,” Grist said. “What I have said is that the response from the Georgian authorities was absolutely disproportionate. To react with indiscriminate shelling -- there just had to be a Russian response.”
He said that he repeatedly warned OSCE diplomats that Georgia might attack, but was ignored – the allegation denied by his former boss Terhi Hakala, head of the OSCE mission in Georgia, who told the Wall Street Journal that Grist didn't give any warnings that were ignored.
Grist was in charge of the OSCE monitoring at the time when the war broke out, as Terhi Hakala was on vacation. There were three monitors in OSCE Tskhinvali field office at that time, who were evacuated on August 8 upon Terhi Hakala’s orders. Grist told the Wall Street Journal that he was furious, as he had been organizing a wider evacuation. He said that he had met with Hakala late on August 11 and “argued bitterly.” The head of mission ordered Grist to take an immediate vacation.
“I thought then, that's probably it with the OSCE. So I went home and I thought, OK, I'll find out what's going on. So I did,” Grist told the Wall Street Journal and added that next morning, on August 12, he set out on the road to Tskhinvali in an unarmored OSCE car.
He also said that the Russian military forces, which were already in control of the breakaway region’s capital at that time, let him inside Tskhinvali.
In Tskhinvali, Grist said, he went to the apartment of a friend, Lira Tskhovrebova, a head of the Tskhinvali-based group the Association of Women of South Ossetia for Democracy and Human Rights.
Just few days before the Wall Street Journal published this article, The Associated Press reported about its investigative piece about Tskhovrebova’s alleged links to the South Ossetian and Russian security services. The report came amid Tskhovrebova’s visit to the United States, which was organized and planned by U.S.-based public-relations firm, Saylor Company.
The report was seized by the Georgian television stations, triggering anger of a group of Tbilisi-based non-governmental groups, which had cooperated with Tskhovrebova’s NGO in Tskhinvali in the past. In a statement they described these reports as “a campaign” to discredit public diplomacy efforts.
The former OSCE official, then continued in the interview with the Wall Street Journal, after arriving in Tskhovrebova’s apartment, his friends hid his car and took him to see two senior South Ossetian officials – whose names were not specified.
Then, he said, he was ordered from the OSCE mission’s head office in Tbilisi to immediately return back; however, he failed because on his way back to Tbilisi he was stopped twice by the South Ossetian militias, so he decided to stay until the Russian army could bring him out, which it did three days later, on August 15. “The OSCE asked the British consulate to remove him from the country, debriefed him and then forced him to resign,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian state minister for reintegration, told the newspaper that the Georgian security services thought Grist was a spy.
“I can't say Grist works for Russia. I don't know. But our secret service thinks so,” Iakobashvili said. “What was he doing going somewhere without his boss knowing?”
Since giving his reports on the war, Grist told the Wall Street Journal, “I've been accused of working for MI6 and the KGB and I have been called a liar.”
“I just wanted to find out what was going on,” he added.
Iakobashvili said after the New York Times published its article in November, that Russia was spending “huge amount of money” to carry out an anti-Georgian campaign in the western media. He also said on November 12 that those reports were based on “suspicious sources.”
And speaking before the Georgian parliamentary commission on November 28, which studied the August war, President Saakashvili suggested that some of the western media reports on the war’s start were part of the Russia’s propaganda.
“We are facing a propaganda machine of the authoritarian country [referring to Russia]; they have tradition of Soviet-old propaganda machine,” Saakashvili said. “Even during the Holodomor [1930s Great Famine in Ukraine] that machine was working; even the New York Times at that time was saying that it was not a hunger at all,” Saakashvili said.