A report ordered by the European Union into the causes of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war is to be released on Wednesday, with potentially explosive findings that could prove delicate for the EU. The team making the report, led by the Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavina, is to submit a report on the five-day war to senior EU officials in Brussels. According to press reports, the findings could place a large portion of the blame on Georgia, whose decision to launch military action in separatist South Ossetia in August 2008 brought down Russia's wrath.
Experts and officials suggest the report, ordered last year by the European Union, which brokered a ceasefire that helped stop the fighting, will distribute the blame evenly. One European diplomat said, on condition of anonymity: "The question is so sensitive that it's hard to imagine that the report would come down in favour of one side or the other." Russia's response in sending scores of tanks into South Ossetia has been widely condemned, as has Moscow's decision to recognise the independence of South Ossetia, and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia.
Since then the EU and Nato have worked hard to smooth over ties with Russia and no one wants to rock the boat. Moscow's help is needed to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and fight insurgents in Afghanistan. However, the EU cannot be seen to ignore violations of sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, whose chances of joining Nato, the world's biggest military alliance, now lie in tatters.
The fact-finding mission was launched in December 2008, "to investigate the origins and the course of the conflict", including its conduct under international law and possible war crimes. It was to report back in July, but diplomats said its work was held up by late answers received to around 100 questions posed to the governments of Russia and Georgia, and the de facto authorities in the two separatist regions.
Given its potential to embarrass, many wonder why the EU commissioned the study. Jacques Sapir, a French expert on Russia, said: "I don't hold out much hope for a very honest report. Nothing will come of it because things are just too sensitive." According to an EU official, the report will not be used to point the finger. The official said the findings would be "very important for drawing lessons within the framework of conflict prevention. It's under this light that we are going to use it."
Georgian officials insist their government has co-operated fully with the team, which is officially independent of the EU, and the country's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is confident his country will not be singled out. Mr Saakashvili said on the US television network CNN last week: "Everybody who was there, and there were serious people there, everybody knows what happened. There is no way Georgia would start a conflict with Russia. We are not crazy."
Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations said that, whatever the findings, the EU, which has observers in Georgia, will tread carefully given its decision to pursue a new strategic partnership with Russia. "One thing I'm sure of is that the EU will try to remain neutral in this debate and will criticise both parties," he said, so that Georgia will be criticised for bombing South Ossetia, Russia for invading.
In any case, Mr Popescu said, "the EU has accepted de facto the partition of Georgia as well as the fact that nothing can be done about it for the next 20 to 30 years." Officials at Nato concede that Georgia's chances of joining, so strong in early 2008 with the backing of the United States, have significantly receded, and membership is at best more than a decade away. * AFP