Mikheil Saakashvili: Ask the Russians why Georgia hasn't been stable

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The Independent Online

Nato last week signalled again that Georgia will join the alliance, and accelerated our membership preparations. The Georgian people welcome this as an important step in returning stability to our neighbourhood after Russia's August invasion.

My government is especially grateful for the UK's support and for David Miliband's encouraging words on our economic and political reforms. As President of Georgia, I will do everything necessary to meet the requirements of the alliance.

As we prepare for eventual membership, we are determined that the events of last summer in South Ossetia will not distract us from our reforms. We have been thoroughly open with the international community about the conflict, but are still having to correct several critical falsehoods.

Since Russia invaded Georgia last August, the international community seems stuck on one question about how the war started: did the Georgian military act irresponsibly to take control of Tskhinvali in the South Ossetia region of Georgia?

This question has been pushed to the centre by a fierce, multimillion-dollar Russian PR campaign that hinges on leaked, partial and misleading reports by a military observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These claimed that Georgia responded militarily in South Ossetia without sufficient provocation by Russia.

Focusing on how the war started distracts from Russia's intense, blatant policy of regime change that has long aimed to destabilise Georgia through ethnic manipulation, and thus thwart our democracy, while stopping Nato's expansion. It has never been disputed that our forces entered South Ossetia: I have always acknowledged that I ordered military action, as any responsible democratic leader would have done, and as the Georgian Constitution required me to do in defence of the country.

I made this decision after being confronted by two facts. First, Russia had massed hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers on the border between Russia and Georgia in the area of South Ossetia. We had firm intelligence that these were crossing into Georgia, a fact later confirmed by telephone intercepts verified by The New York Times and others – and never substantially denied by Russia. Second, for one week Russian forces and their proxies engaged in a series of deadly provocations, shelling Georgian villages under my government's control; much of the artillery was located in Tskhinvali, often within sites controlled by Russian peacekeepers. On 7 August, Russia and its proxies killed several Georgian peacekeepers. Russian peacekeepers and OSCE observers admitted that they were incapable of preventing the lethal attacks. The OSCE had failed to prevent the Russians from building two illegal military bases inside South Ossetia during the preceding year.

So the question is not whether Georgia ordered military action. We did. The question is, rather: what democratic polity would have acted any differently while its citizens were being slaughtered as its sovereign territory was being invaded? South Ossetia and Abkhazia are internationally recognised as part of Georgia, and even some areas within these conflict zones were under Georgian government control before the Russian invasion. We fought to repel a foreign invasion. Georgians never stepped beyond Georgian territory.

Responding firmly to the Putin-Medvedev government implies neither the isolation nor the abandonment of Russia; it can be achieved in tandem with continuing engagement of, and trade with, Russia. But it does require holding Russia to account. Moscow must honour its sovereign commitments and fully withdraw its troops to pre-August positions.

We all hope that Russia soon decides to join the international community as a full partner. This would be the greatest contribution to Georgia's stability. In the interim, we should make sure that we do not sacrifice democracies such as Georgia, which are trying to make this critical part of the world more stable, secure and free.