The Washington Post Column

Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia

The New York Times has done it; so, recently, have European cease-fire monitors, the BBC and NPR. They, along with a host of other investigators, have looked once again into the events surrounding the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia on Aug. 7, the incident that led to the massive Russian invasion of Georgia on Aug. 8.

Their most important conclusion? Georgia started it and killed civilians in the process. My conclusion? We knew that already. We also knew, and have known for some time, that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is susceptible to extreme bouts of criminal foolhardiness. A year ago this month, he attacked demonstrators in Tbilisi with riot police, arrested opposition leaders and even smashed up a Rupert Murdoch-owned television station — possibly not, I wrote at the time, the best way to attract positive international media coverage. I’m told that Saakashvili — who did indeed overthrow the corrupt Soviet nomenklatura that ran his country — has many virtues. But caution, coolheadedness, respect for civilian lives and democratic norms are not among them.

We knew that about him — and so did the Russians. That was why they spent much of the previous year taunting and teasing the Georgians, shooting down their planes, firing on their police officers, attacking their villages, all in an attempt to create a casus belli, either in South Ossetia or in Abkhazia, another Russian-dominated, semi-autonomous mini-enclave inside the Georgian territory. And when Saakashvili did what they were hoping he’d do, they were ready. As one Russian analyst pointed out, Moscow’s response was not an improvised reaction to an unexpected Georgian offensive: “The swiftness with which large Russian contingents were moved into Georgia, the rapid deployment of a Black Sea naval task force, the fact that large contingents of troops were sent to Abkhazia where there was no Georgian attack all seem to indicate a rigidly prepared battle plan.” There was, it seems, one minor miscalculation: As a very senior Russian official recently told a very senior European official, “we expected the Georgians to invade on August 8, not August 7.”

No matter: Once their own well-planned invasion had been launched, the Russians rampaged across the Georgian countryside, systematically destroying seaports and factories, killing civilians, and rolling their tanks into the middle of the country, as if preparing to cut off Tbilisi. Though in the end they didn’t invade the capital, I have no doubt that their intention was to prove that they could have done so if they had wanted to — and that next time they will. The operation succeeded: The Russians went home, declared themselves the defenders of human rights in South Ossetia, exaggerated the number of Ossetian civilian casualties by a factor of 20 and denounced Saakashvili as a “Soros paid, CIA/MI6 controlled puppet.”

This is all old news, of course, but I’m repeating it because it is important to focus, not just once but again and again, on the nuances, complications and layers of this story; it is one whose retelling has recently become an important propaganda tool in an ongoing transatlantic war of words. It is very satisfying to describe Georgia as a tiny, brave and innocent democracy, proudly standing up to the evil Russian bear, as some did at the time. “We are all Georgians,” said John McCain. It is surely also very satisfying to describe Georgia as a tin-pot dictatorship, an evil American neocon lackey and the personal fiefdom of a major war criminal — as some are doing right now. Indeed, for those longing to go back to “business as usual” with Russia, it no doubt is extremely satisfying to discover, suddenly, that it was all Georgia’s fault in the first place.

Unfortunately, neither cartoon version of events is accurate, and no new “investigations” or “revelations” about the August war will make them so. Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia was a disaster, made worse by the bizarrely boastful celebrations he conducted afterward. The outrageous Russian response was also horrific, both for the Georgians and for Russia, whose neighbors (and investors) now know exactly what to expect from the Medvedev-Putin regime.

The conclusions to be drawn from this unsatisfying, cloudy picture are not simple — but then, they never were. In the short term, Georgians must ensure that Saakashvili is not murdered or ousted in a Russian-backed coup. In the long term, Georgians need to choose a leader who can promote true political and economic stability. Until then, Western leaders should support Georgian democracy, not particular Georgian democrats, and prepare a unified response to the Russian military escapades to come. And while the propaganda battle rages in the meantime, stay well on the sidelines.