I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill

Dec 19, 2008

British Monitor Complicates Georgian Blame Game

Observer Whose Reporting Supported Russian Claims About War Went AWOL, Lost His Job and Is Now Under Scrutiny

By MARC CHAMPION

TBILISI, Georgia -- Since Russia invaded Georgia in August, Moscow has turned the tide of international opinion that initially put Russia squarely at fault in the conflict.

For that, the Kremlin largely has to thank Ryan Grist, a 47-year-old former British army captain in charge of international monitors when war broke out. But his objectivity is now being questioned by Georgia and some Western diplomats in Tbilisi.
[Ryan Grist]

Ryan Grist

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he acknowledged for the first time that once war broke out he went AWOL across Russian lines on his own freelance fact-finding mission, which ultimately cost him his job.

Mr. Grist was in charge on the ground for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe when fighting erupted in Georgia's separatist enclave of South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7. Last month, he caused a stir when he told interviewers that his ceasefire monitors never heard Russian-backed provocations that Georgia says triggered the war.

He also says he repeatedly warned OSCE diplomats that Georgia might attack, but was ignored. Since giving his reports on the war, "I've been accused of working for MI6 and the KGB and I have been called a liar," says Mr. Grist. "I just wanted to find out what was going on."

Mr. Grist's bona fides matter. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy eased off the European Union's confrontation with Moscow over its role in the Georgia conflict, he cited news reports based largely on Mr. Grist's account. Former allies of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cited the reports as they called for early elections to oust him.

Mr. Saakashvili recently replaced the defense minister who conducted the war and the foreign minister responsible for selling Georgia's version of events. Georgian leaders say they worry accusations that Georgia shot first will make President-elect Barack Obama unwilling to confront Moscow over Russian troops that remain in South Ossetia.

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Damage incurred six miles from Tskhinvali after Russian tanks and troops entered Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August. The war left 100,000 refugees and badly hurt the Georgian economy.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Damage incurred six miles from Tskhinvali after Russian tanks and troops entered Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August. The war left 100,000 refugees and badly hurt the Georgian economy.
Damage incurred six miles from Tskhinvali after Russian tanks and troops entered Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August. The war left 100,000 refugees and badly hurt the Georgian economy.
Damage incurred six miles from Tskhinvali after Russian tanks and troops entered Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August. The war left 100,000 refugees and badly hurt the Georgian economy.

A veteran of military and diplomatic missions from Northern Ireland to Bosnia and Kosovo, Mr. Grist remains scathing about Georgian actions before and during the war. But he now says some of his comments have been over-interpreted.

"I have never said there was no provocation by the South Ossetians," said Mr. Grist, who was OSCE deputy mission chief in Georgia. Official OSCE reporting said a unilateral cease-fire Georgia declared on Aug. 7 was broken around 10 p.m., nearly two hours before the Georgian artillery assault on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. "What I have said is that the response from the Georgian authorities was absolutely disproportionate," said Mr. Grist. "To react with indiscriminate shelling -- there just had to be a Russian response."

Western diplomats in Tbilisi say they are confused by the narrow debate over who started the fight. They say it ignores equally important evidence, including Russia's actions during the lead-up to war. Ambassador Terhi Hakala of Finland, head of the OSCE mission to Georgia and Mr. Grist's former boss, called what three monitors heard just from villages nearest them on Aug. 7 "a bit irrelevant." She added, "We're very limited in what we can monitor." Ms. Hakala also said Mr. Grist didn't give any warnings that were ignored.

Georgia believes Mr. Grist is a spy. "I can't say Grist works for Russia. I don't know. But our secret service thinks so," says Temuri Yakobashvili, a top Georgian official. "What was he doing going somewhere without his boss knowing?" The government has distributed tapes of someone he stayed with discussing foreigners with South Ossetia's KGB chief, but neither the fact not the content of the conversations is conclusive.

When the war began, Mr. Grist was in charge of the OSCE monitors and Ms. Hakala was home in Finland on vacation. Firefights in South Ossetia had been escalating for weeks. In the days before the war, Russian-backed South Ossetians were evacuating civilians and -- unusually -- had denied OSCE monitors access to several Ossetian villages. "It looks like all sides (including Russians) are waiting for the other side to make a fatal mistake in order to retaliate," said an Aug. 5 report by a European Union diplomat, viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Georgia began pulling thousands of troops and equipment toward Tskhinvali on Thursday, Aug. 7. But with a cease-fire in place, Mr. Grist, who was in Tbilisi, says he thought it was safe to let three OSCE monitors stay in the town. By midnight, Georgian artillery was raining down on Tskhinvali. The OSCE office was hit; the monitors were in the basement. Friday morning, Ms. Hakala called the Finnish major leading the team and ordered them to evacuate as soon as possible.

Mr. Grist was furious. He says he had been organizing a wider evacuation. When he and Ms. Hakala met alone at 2 a.m. in Tbilisi the following Monday night, as Georgia's army fled the battle zone and rumors swirled that Russian tanks were headed for Tbilisi, they argued bitterly, they both say. Ms. Hakala ordered him to take an immediate vacation.

"I thought then, that's probably it with the OSCE. So I went home and I thought, OK, I'll find out what's going on. So I did," says Mr. Grist.

At dawn on Tuesday, Aug. 12, he set out on the road to South Ossetia in an unarmored OSCE car. He rolled down the windows so he could hear any firing as he drove through emptying Georgian villages. A column of Russian tanks refueling on the road outside Tskhinvali let him through, he says.

In Tskhinvali, Mr. Grist says he went to the apartment of a friend, Lira Tskhovrebova, who worked for a nonprofit organization and was well connected with the local authorities. Friends hid his car and took him to see two top South Ossetian officials.

The OSCE in Tbilisi told him to return right away. On the road home, he says, he was stopped by one of the gangs of South Ossetian militia that had begun rampaging through Georgian villages, killing, looting and burning houses. "They pulled me out of the car and threw me down on the road, and then it got pretty heavy," says Mr. Grist. He says he shouted the names of the officials he had just been meeting "so they wouldn't shoot me."

On foot, Mr. Grist then had to take cover from crossfire under the rear of a Russian tank. Then he was caught by a second gang of South Ossetian militia, he says. Finally he decided to stay indoors until the Russian army could bring him out, which it did three days later, on Aug. 15. The OSCE asked the British consulate to remove him from the country, debriefed him and then forced him to resign.
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1 comment:

Oleg said...

In Tskhinvali, Ths KGB agent
Mr. Grist says he went to the apartment of a friend, KGB agent Lira Tskhovrebova, who worked for a nonprofit organization and was well connected with the local authorities. Friends hid his car and took him to see two top South Ossetian officials.

http://www.robertamsterdam.com/2008/12/video_lira_tskhovrebova.htm