A new controversy is brewing over the New Deputy Head of the EUMM, the European Union Monitoring Mission to Georgia, the organisation set up under the terms of the ceasefire which ended the 2008 Russian Georgian war. It was provoked by the publication of an apparent spin article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “British Monitor Complicates Georgian Blame Game”
This article and the media frenzy which has followed it in Georgia has left many pundits shaking their heads, an action liable to cause an avalanche in a country where political experts outnumber the general population.
Ryan Grist, a former British Army officer, was the deputy head of the OSCE mission in Georgia, which had a field office in Tskhinvali, when the war broke out in August 2008. He lost this job after making a controversial and unauthorised trip to Tskhinvali, capital of breakaway South Ossetia, on August 12 while the war was in progress.
In November 2008, after he had been sacked and could speak his mind, he gave interviews to some major Western media outlets in which he accused Georgia of making a “completely indiscriminate and disproportionate” attack on Tskhinvali on August 7. In response, some Georgian officials suggested that he was a Russian spy and that this story was part of Russia’s barrage of “propaganda”. This allegation is the basis of the new spate of stories about him.
The prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel reported Grist’s version, but few other outlets. Therefore few people officially believed his account of the events of 2008. His new appointment should therefore be being met with contempt: why would the EUMM want an ignorant person, who got everything wrong in 2008, to be its deputy leader? Instead, it is provoking a smear campaign: the tactics of fear.
You do not have to smear an idiot, they do it themselves. Hence all the books of George W. Bush quotes. So why is this happening?
Who Knows What
Articles such as the Wall Street Journal one do not just happen, as any hack who doesn’t have a guaranteed regular column knows. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is “do not believe in coincidences and do not be too emotional”. So the question which needs to be asked is not “why has this man been appointed Deputy Head of the EUMM?” but “why is a five year old story about him suddenly deemed relevant now?”
I was in Georgia during the 2008 war, and have personal knowledge of what transpired on the ground. I went behind the Russian lines during the conflict and saw what had happened in South Ossetia for myself. Based on my observations, Ryan Grist and those who confirmed his account (Dieter Boden and Hans Richter of the OSCE) were simply telling the truth about who did what, when and how. They outlined a pattern of events which was consistent with my own prior observations and the information I had obtained before the attack from future participants.
I had not consulted Grist, Boden and Richter before they spoke to the press, they had not consulted me. Indeed I had never met all of these individuals, who independently saw the same things I did, before they made these statements.
Anyone who had heard the loose talk of US servicemen in Tbilisi bars, and then saw what they had predicted would happen replicated in almost exact detail, would know that the Georgian side and their US and NATO partners planned the 2008 war in advance. Indeed, the head of the Georgian Border Police of the time, who risked his job by saying it, confirmed that his men had intercepted a truckload of Georgian flags on its way to South Ossetia, ready to be flown to celebrate Georgia regaining control of the region. Official Tbilisi did not even try to explain what else so many flags might have been sent to Tskhinvali for.
It is obvious that Russia knew what Georgia, the US and NATO were planning, which is why Saakashvili went in on the first day of the Olympics rather than the date agreed with his partners, a classic manouevre to detract attention used on several previous occasions, such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. However, Georgia’s actions made it clear that the 2008 conflict was not a Russian invasion, as the conventional outside imposed narrative has portrayed it to be.
With this in mind a wide range of contacts has been asked about Grist, directly and through third parties. These include members of the new Georgian government, human rights organisations, the Georgian journalist community and finally the EUMM itself. Most of these avoided giving a straight answer to most of what was asked, perhaps out of not knowing or perhaps as willful subterfuge. However one source in the know was prepared to say,
“You need to bear in mind that the UNM opposition wants Ryan Grist out of Georgia, and especially away from West Georgia, with all that has transpired here. You know better than anybody, as is seen in your investigative articles, what goes on here. You need to look at the threat of Saakashvili and members of his former government being brought before the International Criminal Court, what is NOT taking place and most of those who should be subject to prosecution are walking free; I know you love this topic. Well Saddam was prosecuted, and he was no more evil, in fact he did a lot of good … we know that Saakashvili won’t be penalised for his actions, but it doesn’t hurt to ask why.”
The UNM is still successfully lobbying its lost cause throughout Europe, as we can see from the number of EU figures who are denouncing the prosecutions of former UNM ministers for alleged crimes that no minister in their own countries would be allowed to get away with. So Grist must have got it wrong, and not be worthy of attention. Unless, of course, he got it right, a lot of people know he did, and a lot of people are scared of others knowing he did.
The United National Movement and What We Know About It
The United National Movement is the party of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, once hailed as the party of “reform and Western and European values”, which in the end proved more corrupt and murderous than any democratic party would ever admit to being, and most never would be.
In 2012, having exhausted the patience of its US paymasters who couldn’t tolerate any more bad publicity, it was displaced by a new government in democratic elections which, unlike those held during UNM rule, did not lead to any reports of consistent and systematic vote rigging. In theory, therefore, those allegedly involved in murder and human rights violations, about whom more pages of evidence can be filed than in some of the cases brought at the Nuremberg Trials, can finally be held accountable. But at the moment, this isn’t happening.
In its recently published Freedom in the World Report Freedom House made a very interesting statement. It ranked Georgia the second freest country in its region, behind Moldova, praising the strengthening of democratic institutions under the new government. However it also stated that “there are still concerns about selective prosecutions of officials from former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government.” Not “prosecutions” but “selective prosecutions.”
Perhaps without realising it, Freedom House has hit the nail on the head. If the ministers being prosecuted have a case to answer, so do all the others, due to the institutional nature of their crimes. Selective prosecution is merely picking on particular people you don’t like. If these people are guilty, their friends should go down with them.
But does anyone have the guts to go against world opinion and round them up? Grist went against world opinion on the 2008 war, even though only internally to begin with, and it cost him his job. But he has now been appointed the deputy leader of an organisation which deals with the fallout of that war every day – which knows what it is talking about. This sets a precedent. If the EUMM gets away with defying the UNM PR machine, others will too.
Georgians know their former government very well, without the world telling them what to think. This can easily be tested. Go there with an interpreter and mention the name of a former minister. The person you are talking to, regardless of their politics, will immediately respond by talking about their alleged crimes – whether attacking them or defending them. The UNM is associated with crime, not politics.
A string of UNM stalwarts have indeed been jailed, or are under criminal investigation, for crimes such as weapons trafficking, summarily executions and drug dealing. Others are on the waiting list, and will be charged as soon as the prosecutors have the time. The public reaction? Everyone gets on with life quietly. The mass protests which have characterised Georgian politics since before independence just aren’t happening, for the first time anyone can remember. If these prosecutions are outrageous, you are entitled to ask where the outrage is.
The Washington Post reported last year that there is a “high probability” that Saakashvili and his allies will eventually be prosecuted for corruption and other misdeeds, including the use of violence by riot police. Again, this article did not get into that paper by accident. If Saakashvili won’t go away quietly, and take what he knows with him, this is the ultimate sanction. For now, he can expect protection, but everyone has to play that game for it to work. If the EUMM openly employs someone who doesn’t, a lot more will become known, and a lot of people implicated.
What the UNM Knows
The UNM knows it started the 2008 war, and sent hundreds of Georgians to die. It knows what the testimonies of the soldiers who were there, and the families of those who died, already say and will continue to say. It knows that not only was excessive force used but war crimes committed – including the indiscriminate reining of cluster bombs on civilian populations in South Ossetia and the buffer region.
It has been protected up until now by what it knows about what its partners did in Georgia. Now the EUMM has appointed someone else who knows it as their deputy head. All those forces know that if the EUMM sees fit to appoint him, despite what we are told are his severe misconceptions about the conflict they are there to deal with, they can’t just dismiss him as a know-nothing or spy as before.
If Saakashvili were black he would have been strung up, Ku Klux Klan style, long ago or shipped off to the International Criminal Court to be charged with crimes against humanity. Because he was once the face of the New World Order he still has to be whiter than white in the world’s eyes.
But there is a funny thing about whitewash. If there is only one dark spot in it, than that is the spot everyone notices. Unless it is removed, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the whitewash crumbles, and what’s underneath is shown to be the same colour as the spot.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.