Transcript of Teleconference Briefing by Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze (Minister Temur Yakobashvili also taking part)
Held at 20:30 CET, Thursday, August 14, 2008
GURGENIDZE: Hello everybody. Let me start by saying that this call has been long in the making. Let me start with one simple fact. Two years ago, we asked for international control of the Roki tunnel, which connects Russia to Georgia through South Ossetia. Well, clearly, the tragic events of the past few days have demonstrated that we were right to do so.
Secondly, last year, we presented to the OSCE evidence of the Russians still engaging in activities in the region of Dzhava, which is the North-Western part of the province of South Ossetia. This was unfortunately ignored, or not acted upon, but we now know that in this invasion that a facility there was used to supply the Russian armed forces. The Roki tunnel clearly had been a significant artery for the shipment of Russian munitions and arms to the South Ossetian separatist rebels, and as I will tell you in a couple of minutes some of these arms were particularly illegal.
As for the peacekeeping arrangements that have been enforced since 1992, and were again unfortunately used against the Georgian government forces as well as civilians in the first week of August.
Moving on to the months of June and July, Georgia, from a Russian point of view, has three vulnerable points. These are Gali, which has about 50,000 predominantly ethnic Georgian inhabitants, the Kodori Gorge in Upper Abkhazia, and then of course the Tskhinvali region in South Ossetia. The cause of the Roki tunnel connection is particularly important in this case. The very complicated geography of South Ossetia, which is basically a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages, has always made the situation there particularly prone to a provocation. It’s ironic, because Georgians and Ossetians have generally gotten along well there over the past fifteen years, and there was a measure of integration. But we have three points of vulnerability, right?
So as far as Gali is concerned, we all know the Russian railway troops, rehabilitating the railway over the summer, which extends to Gali and is particularly useful for the shipment of munitions. As far as Kodori’s vulnerability, as we all know, the Russian forces deployed paratrooper forces in the region of Orchamchire, which essentially opened a directional attack on the Kodori gorge. And lastly, if we shift our attention to South Ossetia for a second, the pattern was as follows:
In July, there was an assassination attempt on Dmitri Sanakoyev, who is the democratically elected leader of the region, in elections recognized by the international community. Parallel elections also took place. Roughly half of the population took part in those elections, and they elected him democratically. Also in July, there was an initiative of Peter Semneby, the special envoy of Javier Solana, in Georgia to arrange talks between the Georgian government and South Ossetians in Brussels. The Ossetian separatists unfortunately refused to have such a meeting. Also in July, there was an initiative by Mr. Stubb to arrange a similar meeting in Finland. Again, the separatists declined to have any contribution.
Beginning in June of this year, the government really made an effort to talk to international donors about the concept of the establishment of an economic zone in the conflict area in order to promote the further integration in civilian life of Georgian and Ossetian villages, and also to help alleviate chronically difficult social conditions there on both sides.
Moving to the first week of August, the approximate timeline is as follows. On August the 1st, at around 8 a.m. local time, six Georgian police officers were hit by two remote controlled explosions on a bypass road in the conflict area of South Ossetia. As a result of the attack, five Georgian policemen were severely wounded. The central authorities decided not to retaliate.
On the second of August, six civilians and one Georgian policemen were injured after the shelling of Georgian villages in the South Ossetian conflict zone overnight. For the first time since the peacekeeping mission began, in South Ossetia, the separatist rebels used heavy artillery – 120mm tube artillery – in those attacks, for the first time ever. As for the peacekeeping arrangements, no artillery larger than 80mm in calibre is allowed or legal.
On August the third, the Russian media outlets started a massive propaganda campaign against Georgia, and the South Ossetian separatist media sources reported the mobilisation of “volunteers” across the Northern Caucasus. There was relative quiet on the 4th and 5th, no serious incidents in the context of everything else.
On the 6th of August, the separatists fired on several villages. The government forces fired back in order to defend their positions and the civilian population. As a result of the intensive crossfire during the night, two servicemen were injured. The separatists also claimed several injuries on their side. Again, on the 6th of August, the government forces decided not to respond to heavy fire, in order to avoid civilian casualties.
Now Temur Yakobashvili has been our negotiator for some time, with the separatist rebels. He said on that day that it was the position of the Georgian government that only direct talks with Tskhinvali would resolve the deteriorating security situation. Mr. Yakobashvili also says that the envoy of the Russian Federation, Yuri Popov, was with him during the talks. The South Ossetian negotiator refused to take part.
On the 7th of August, during the night and early morning, intensive firing on Ossetian villages – again, 120mm artillery used. The separatist authorities continued shelling throughout the day. The government forces responded with limited fire on their positions. The government forces at this stage are obviously the police, and the Georgian peacekeeping battalion.
The same morning, the South Ossetian de facto leader, Eduard Kokoity, declared that if the Georgian government did not withdraw its forces from the region, it would start to “clean them out.” President Saakashvili, speaking to journalists in the military hospital in Gori, where he visited the Georgian peacekeeping battalion, said that despite attacks on Georgian villages the government was showing restraint. President Saakashvili also called on Russia to withdraw its officials from South Ossetia.
Temur Yakobashvili was in the conflict zone in the morning of the 7th, to meet with the representatives of the separatists. I will let him describe the events of that afternoon.
YAKOBASHVILI: We had an agreement to have a meeting with the secessionist leaders brokered by the Russian Federation, on the Russian peacekeeping base. We went there, and we asked separatist representatives to come with us. Tskhinvali was already looking, by then, like a deserted city. Nobody was in the streets – no cars, no people. We headed to the Russian military base. We met the general of the Russian peacekeepers, and he said that the separatists were not answering the phone. I asked him if he could stop their shooting at Georgian villages, and he said that he was incapable of doing so. When I asked what we should do, he told me to declare a unilateral ceasefire, and keep it as long as we could.
And that’s exactly what we did. Right after talking to the general, I got in touch with the President, the President delivered the message, and informed the Russian side that we were indeed declaring a unilateral ceasefire. I went to Tbilisi and announced it. Later, the President addressed the nation through a televised interview. Meanwhile, the Russian envoy reached Tskhinvali.
What happened after that is that the shelling and annihilation of Georgian villages continued, unfortunately. We were showing restraint when two, then three, were destroyed, when our people were wounded. The tipping point truly came when three different sources confirmed that extra troops were moving in the Roki tunnel, from the Russian Federation, with armed vehicles, tanks and a substantial number of troops, all entering the region of Dzhava. We later discovered they were coming to Tskhinvali. So while we were showing restraint, while our people were dying, while our villages were burning, we discovered that more troops were entering the conflict zone. I’ll hand over to the Prime Minister for more information.
GURGENIDZE: Let me try to get back to the timeline here. So after the unsuccessful trip, in the evening, President Saakashvili unilaterally pledged a ceasefire in a televised address at about 7.10 p.m. At around 8.30 p.m., the Georgian village of Avnevi in South Ossetia again came under heavy fire from South Ossetian militias. The village was pretty much totally destroyed as a result. The separatists fired at a Georgian village at around 10.30 p.m. Again, all the while, the government forces were unilaterally observing the ceasefire.
Then the separatist forces opened fire at all Georgian positions around Tskhinvali, at around 11.30 p.m., including the villages of Tamarasheni and Kurta. This was a massive attack, involving howitzers, 120mm heavy artillery units, long range, were used – unprecedented. We have evidence of that as well. Anything larger than the 80mm calibre has always been disallowed.
Finally, there were confirmed reports that a massive column, up to 150 units, had come through the Roki tunnel and was crossing the Georgian-Russian border from the Russian side. However reluctantly, the commander-in-chief then made a decision to defend Georgian villages.
What’s interesting is that essentially, it appears that a choice was made that South Ossetia was the easiest region in which to flare up violence. I’ll be happy to take questions now.
Anne Penketh, The Independent: This is a question for the Prime Minister. You say that the commander took the decision to retaliate on the 7th. The next day, then. Did he go on television on August the 8th before the attacks took place in Tskhinvali?
GURGENIDZE: On the evening of the 7th, for the first time since the 1990s, two Georgian peacekeepers were killed, six more were injured. Later, the intelligence emerged that this large column of vehicles had entered the Roki tunnel, crossing the border. It was at that point that, with the military commanders, he made the decision to retaliate.
Quentin Peel, Financial Times: I wanted to ask about that Georgian retaliation on the night of the 7th, because reports on the Ossetian side suggest that the whole exercise lasted for twelve to fourteen hours. Is that correct?
GURGENIDZE: No, that’s not correct, actually. The Georgian television channels started reporting the events live, so those tapes obviously exist. First, two or three points outside of Tskhinvali were suppressed. As far as the fire points in Tskhinvali are concerned, military reports suggest around four two five hours. And that’s when the Georgian forces entered the town of Tskhinvali, after suppressing the fire points. They were located near the base of the Russian peacekeeping battalion, also around the buildings of the so-called “Ministries of Defence and the Interior.” The military entered Tskhinvali about five hours after that. It is at that point that they were bombarded by the Russians, in Tskhinvali itself.
Around 3000 Georgian infantry at that point entered the city, then had to leave it after only four hours because of the very heavy Russian bombardment. This is in the early morning hours of the 8th. Between dawn and around eleven o’clock. They had to leave to avoid heavy casualties. It’s very interesting how so much Russian firepower arrived so quickly. Then the Georgian infantry entered Tskhinvali for the second time at 3 p.m. This was on the 8th of August, but only managed to stay there until 10 p.m. because of airstrikes and heavy artillery fire from the Russian side. At around 10 p.m. on the 8th, having sustained severe casualties, they had to retreat again. So two entries occurred on the 8th, each causing heavy Russian attacks.
At around 6 a.m. the Georgian forces blew up the Kurta bridge. A column of the Russian troops that had entered the previous night from the Roki tunnel was there, so a couple of their vehicles were blown up as well. They were about 200km from the nearest base in Russia. This is a heavy armoured column, moving slowly, on very rugged terrain. Think about how many hours of preparation, assembly, then marching, it would take for that column, moving at that speed on rugged terrain to be at the Kurta bridge at six in the morning. If that isn’t a premeditated invasion, I don’t know what is.
Nicola Smith, Sunday Times: I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the contact you had with Washington on the evening of the 7th and 8th of August, who you spoke to and what message they were sending you.
YAKOBASHVILI: **GARBLED** They were saying all the time that “you Georgians are too focused on Russia all the time.” We showed them Georgian villages that had been shelled. We showed what kind of artillery was used, and everyone had a chance to see what was going on in the villages. Police stations were not bombed nearly as much as civilian houses, churches and so on. Of course the Georgian President was with the world leaders and international organisations – NATO, the EU and others – and informing them about developments in the region.
Clifford Levy, New York Times: Can you tell us what the state of play is today? We’ve also heard reports that Russian armour is in Zugdidi, and what that means.
GURGENIDZE: Well, we’re wondering the same thing. It’s a rather large column of Russian armour, over 100 pieces. We have no idea what they’re doing there, why they’re moving, where they’re going, with what purpose, why such heavy force – we just don’t know. One explanation could be that they’re trying to rattle the civilian population because despite the massive and widespread human suffering since the conflict begain, despite the looting, pillaging and marauding of the civilian population, Georgians are hanging on.
**THE REST OF THE CONVERSATION IS GARBLED, AND THE RECORDING WAS STOPPED**