Now Comes the Hangover

Note: Not sure where or when this was published. Date is my best guess. Think I had already severed my connection with Russia Blog at this time because of editorial interference.

France, which currently holds the Presidency of the EU, in the persons of President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Kouchner, has induced President Saakashvili to sign the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement.

According to both President Medvedev’s office and a French news agency the terms are as follows:

1. Tbilisi must make a commitment not to use force to settle its secessionist problems.

2. Georgian armed forces must cease fire.

3. Georgian armed forces must return to their barracks.

4. Russian armed forces introduced into South Ossetia must also be returned to their barracks.

5. There must be free access for humanitarian aid.

6. The beginning of a serious international discussion about the situation.

Sarkozy has offered EU personnel or soldiers – the details are not yet worked out – for peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is a very helpful offer: not only will it be a further brake on Tbilisi but it may – finally – get Western attention focussed on the people in these areas and not on Tbilisi’s spin.

The reason why Sarkozy and Medvedev were able to come to agreement so quickly is that the terms conform precisely to what Moscow said it was doing all along. In my earlier post to this blog I quoted a Russian military spokesman who on Friday said: “In the future any shooting in the responsibility zone of Russian peacekeepers will be stifled”. On Monday the Russian Foreign Minister said: “besides a ceasefire by Georgian units, it is also important to achieve a full and unconditional withdrawal of the Georgian troops from South Ossetia, a halt of the military action against it from all regions of Georgia, and a prompt signing of a legally binding agreement on the non-use of force between South Ossetia and Georgia.”

Moscow has been trying for years to get Tbilisi to commit to not using force and trying to get the outside world to seriously look at these problems and not just swallow Saakashvili’s view. And the 58th Army and the Pskov Airborne regiment were never going to stay there. All credit to Sarkozy for understanding the justice of these points.

In short, Moscow has done exactly what it said it would do, no more and no less. There is nothing in this agreement about regime change, conquest of Georgia or any of the rest of the hysterical reporting from so much of the world’s media, Russia troops have not invaded the rest of Georgia, they do not occupy Gori or Senaki or Poti (readers can amuse themselves by watching CNN quietly retreat from these claims on its interactive map).

Most of the world’s media has been appallingly irresponsible in its coverage. At least one news agency took film from Russia Today’s coverage of the destruction of Tskhinvali and gave the impression it was film from Gori. I have heard that a Spanish TV station went farther and actually passed off pictures of refugees from South Ossetia as Georgians and Tskhinvali as a Georgian city. In almost every case they repeated what Tbilisi told them and didn’t bother to check. Newspaper headlines all over the world gave the impression that Russia was marching on Tbilisi bent on overthrowing Saakashvili. Unfortunately these reports have influenced official statements by foreign governments. I encourage readers to go to news media websites and see these reports before they quietly disappear.

None of it was true: Moscow did exactly what it said it would do. On occasion, as it admitted at the time, that involved airstrikes on Georgian facilities or spoiling raids on Georgian military forces. There is a military logic: some of the fire that Russia was “stifling” came from artillery and aircraft outside South Ossetia; no army would just leave them alone. By the way, the Russians claim to have found a map in a Georgian command vehicle outlining an attack on Abkhazia. That probably explains the spoiling attack on the Georgian base in Senaki (which the Russian announced at the time).

There are some rational and informed voices (see here for example) but, thus far, they have been overwhelmed by a torrent of one-sided, sloppy and over-heated nonsense.

But I believe, perhaps naively, that the truth will out. French Foreign Minister Kouchner and Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb had the moral courage to go to the refugee camps in North Ossetia and speak to the people there. What they saw and heard cannot be ignored. The inclusion of the sixth point in the settlement and his remarks in Moscow show that Sarkozy does understand that the secessionist problems in Georgia can no longer be dismissed as just something cooked up in Moscow.

That having been said, I do wish the Russians would just keep their mouths shut. Don’t say that they can never trust Saakashvili again; let the Georgians and all the Westerners who cosseted him figure that out by themselves. Don’t fulminate about Washington’s responsibility in encouraging him; leave Washington to its own self-examination. Don’t opine that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will never be part of Georgia; let the rest of the world realise that that is now impossible. These are all perfectly obvious: they speak for themselves.

In short a mind is a hard thing to change and a lot of mind-changing will have to go on. It will take time: it is after all, only since Thursday midnight that the re-thinking began.