Page last updated at 21:18 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 22:18 UK

Uncomfortable conclusions for Georgia

As a European Union report into last year's conflict between Georgia and Russia puts a large part of the blame on Georgia, the BBC's Tom Esslemont in Tbilisi asks where this leaves the small Caucasian nation.

Even before the EU-sponsored report was published, Georgia was pushing the line that it does not matter who fired the first shot. The main issue, it said, is Russia's ongoing "occupation" of its sovereign territory and years of stoking tensions between Georgia and its rebel regions.

Now the independent inquiry into the conflict has concluded. But it is not entirely the conclusion Georgia wanted to hear.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili speaks in Tbilisi
Georgia's president has not yet reacted to the report

It said Georgia's use of force on the night of 7 August 2008 was not justifiable in the context of international law.

It also said that it could not substantiate "Georgian claims of a large-scale presence of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia prior to the Georgian offensive on 7/8 August".

The Georgian government's response - as expected - has been to dismiss those comments.

Wednesday evening's national TV news bulletins said the report pinned the blame on Russia.

'Divide and rule'

For his part, Temuri Yakobashvili, state minister for reintegration, told the BBC that, although most of the facts in the report were accurate, he disagreed with some elements of it.

"I disagree with the notion that Georgia used excessive force in the attack on Tskhinvali because, as I mentioned, there are ample evidences of Russian deployment and these were not just peacekeepers, so one can hardly judge what is proportionate," he said. "One can hardly judge what is proportionate or disproportionate in this case."

The Georgians have always maintained that Moscow was intent on subverting Georgia in an effort to "divide and rule".

Indeed, the report states unequivocally that while "the onus of having actually triggered off the war lies with the Georgian side, the Russian side, too, carries the blame for a substantial number of violations of international law".

Georgians line up for humanitarian food distribution in August 16, 2008 in Gori, Georgia.
Many Georgians who fled during the war have been unable to return home

So, with these conclusions, where does Georgia go from here?

In the very short term, both countries' reactions to the findings have only emphasised the deep divide that exists between Georgia and Russia and have shown that any hope of the two agreeing on the origins of the war is far-fetched.

Secondly, it has highlighted just how deep-seated the problem is.

For example, there are more than 20,000 displaced ethnic Georgians living in temporary accommodation in Georgia proper as a result of the 2008 conflict, unable to return to their homes in South Ossetia.

The region, and Georgia's other disputed territory of Abkhazia, have declared independence and are both home to thousands of Russian troops. Russia, together with Nicaragua and Venezuela, has recognised their independence.

Absent figure

The chance of Georgia regaining control of its breakaway territories is dim.

But, argues Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics at Colombia University, the report might be good for Georgia, a country dependent on all the support it can get from the EU and one which has aspirations to join Nato.

"This [report] lays out the extent of the problem the country faces," argues Mr Mitchell.

He also says it will not "change the European thought [that] Georgia should be a member of Nato". But, he argues, the West still does not want it to happen quite yet.

Continued destruction which came after the ceasefire agreement was not justifiable by any means
Report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia

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The one notably absent figure in Georgia's official reaction to the report has been its controversial president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

He was the one who ordered the assault on Tskhinvali - a decision at the centre of this report's conclusions.

Although the document is considered the most impartial and authoritative investigation into the conflict to date, it is unlikely to have told Western leaders and experts anything they did not already know, most of them having long since concluded that Georgia - or moreover Mr Saakashvili - fell into a Russian trap when the attack on South Ossetia was launched.

Most Georgian people have also made up their minds.

Large-scale street protests calling for Mr Saakashvili's resignation in April 2009 were in part an expression of demonstrators' belief that their president recklessly dragged the country into a war Georgia could not win.

But the country's leader refused all calls to step down, pointing out that only a minority of his countrymen had taken to the streets to denounce him, and the protests eventually fizzled out.

Heidi Tagliavini's independent war inquiry team has completed its mission. Now it is up to Europe - and to history - to decide what to do with it.

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