EU Monitoring Russia-Georgia Tensions

On the eve of a European Union report on who started the Russia-Georgia war, EU monitors said Tuesday they have stepped up patrols in Georgia to keep tensions from boiling over into violence.

The August 2008 war ended with Russian soldiers driving Georgian forces out of the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia now keeps thousands of troops in the regions and recognizes them as independent states.

Russia, in apparent violation of the EU-brokered peace agreement, has not allowed EU monitors into the two regions, and tensions persist along their boundaries with the rest of Georgia.

The head of the EU's 200-member mission in Georgia said the borders were largely quiet. "We hope it will remain the same" after the EU report is released Wednesday, Hansjoerg Haber said. "We have made our little contribution by reinforcing our patrols and our visibility" over the past week.

The EU-commissioned report, written by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, is expected to lay blame for the war with both sides — an outcome the EU hopes will ease regional tensions, according to EU officials who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

"It is a report that has been done by a neutral person," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in Goteborg, Sweden. "It may clarify the situation."

Russia and Georgia blame each other for starting the war. Fighting began with a Georgian artillery assault on South Ossetia's capital. Georgia says it launched the barrage to repel Russian forces it alleges started entering South Ossetia a day earlier.

Russia denies that and says it sent troops only after the barrage began to protect Russian peacekeepers and citizens in the region. Russia had granted passports to most South Ossetia residents and undertook other actions Georgia regarded as provocative, including sending warplanes over Georgian territory.

One EU official said she expected Wednesday's EU report to say Georgia started the war, but Russia drove Tbilisi to the brink and exploited the situation afterward.

"Conditions have often been like that between Georgia and its big brother," said the official, who is involved in EU-Russia relations and human rights issues.

Another EU official said both sides had shown shortcomings, including a failure to prevent the conflict.

Russia's envoy to NATO rejected Western allegations that Russia used disproportionate force during the war — an issue the EU report is expected to raise. Dmitry Rogozin insisted Russia's use of force was measured, saying that "if the response was actually disproportionate, I think that our troops would be standing in Tbilisi."

For weeks rumors have suggested the report would also criticize Georgia for some of the fighting. "I have no reason to disbelieve that," said European Parliamentarian Richard Howitt, an expert on EU-Russia relations. "The inquiry was a genuinely open one to find the real evidence."

Russia is sure to scan the report carefully for material that could support its contention that Georgia committed or planned genocide against Ossetians, after having threatened to take the issue to the international human rights court despite appearing to have little evidence. Russia initially said some 2,000 Ossetian civilians were killed in the war, but later reduced that figure to 133.

Whether the report weakens Georgia's claims to South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be another issue. Blaming Georgia would boost Russia's effort to get international recognition for the regions — only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit. It also could undermine Georgia's hopes of soon becoming a NATO member.

Putting the onus on Russia, however, could reinforce Russia's belief that the West is biased against it and could also chill the nascent attempts to improve Washington-Moscow relations.

Analysts would be considering whether the report has wider implications on U.S.-Russia relations, especially as the Obama administration seeks the Kremlin's support for tougher action against Iran, said Daniel Warner, a professor at Geneva's graduate institute HEI.

"If it says (President Mikhail) Saakashvili was the instigator, does this allow the U.S. to pull the plug on him and look to support someone else as a future Georgian president?" Warner asked.

Also Tuesday, Georgian officials complained about Abkhazia's plan to change its landline and cellular telephones to Russia's country code.