Less Blame Game, More Help for War’s Victims

A fiery piece of street theater in Tbilisi was the perfect climax to a week in which a European Union commission published its investigation into last year’s Georgia-Russia war. The flame-breathing marauders, blazing houses and terrified refugees that featured in a spectacular and moving performance by Poland’s Eighth Day Theater brought back distressing memories of the conflict, just as last week’s EU-backed report condemned both Moscow and Tbilisi for their roles in the brief but brutal clash.

The investigation has reignited, rather than resolved, the dispute about who started the war. The Kremlin says the report proves that Georgia struck first. The authorities in Tbilisi say the exact opposite. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili even stated that the document was a “great diplomatic victory” because it exposed Russian “lies.” He described his decision to initiate combat operations in South Ossetia in August 2008 as a “holy duty” in defense of his homeland.

The Georgian opposition has used the report as another opportunity to damn Saakashvili after months of street protests earlier this year ended in failure. Opposition leaders believe that he foolishly stumbled into Moscow’s trap. “President Saakashvili’s irresponsible and illegitimate actions have damaged the country’s vital interests,” declared Nino Burjanadze, a former government loyalist turned opposition rabble-rouser.

On the streets of Tbilisi, many people still blame Russia for the war. “The Russians started it. They were preparing for this for a long time,” one man insisted. “Even if the Georgian side shot first, it makes no difference.”

This view has been strongly promoted by the country’s pro-government television, which have taken a firm patriotic stance against what they call “the Russian aggression.”

But in the bomb-damaged villages on the fringes of South Ossetia, there was little interest in the report on the day it was published. Locals were more keen to talk about how they would sell their apples after this year’s harvest. In places like this, where camouflage-clad servicemen still maintain their checkpoints, burnt-out houses have become permanent reminders of the war. And in the drab refugee settlements along Georgia’s main highway, it matters little which side the European diplomats have blamed for starting the conflict. Unlike most of the politicians, the people living here will be suffering the consequences for years to come.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.