Sorting Fact from Fiction: Ambassador Fournier on the August War

Exclusive Interview

Eric Fournier, former French Ambassador to Georgia, was, as he himself admits, an unconventional diplomat in some ways. Or, change that ‘some’ with ‘many;’ in many ways. Fournier, never afraid to speak his mind, has a special story to tell about the 2008 war, one that is still talked about in diplomatic circles in Georgia. GEORGIA TODAY and Realpolitik Talk Show spoke to him in an exclusive interview that went viral in Georgian media.

“When the war started, I was in France with other ambassadors who had left Georgia following a discussion with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eka Tkeshelashvili, who had reassured us that the probability of conflict was low. When the August 7 attack took place, I was in France, and I was immediately called back by the Ministry for an urgent meeting with Bernard Kouchner [the French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs] in Paris; and that’s when we decided to react, first of all because France had the presidency of the EU, and secondly because my minister and myself thought that we could not do nothing while this conflict was ongoing. I went back to Georgia to help prepare the first draft for a ceasefire, waiting for Kouchner’s arrival. He came on August 10 with the OSCE President, Alexander Stubb, from Finland. We presented our ceasefire agreement to President Saakashvili on the evening of August 10.”

Johnathan Littell’s accounts of the 2008 war had you telling him there was no notice whatsoever given to the Western allies of Georgia that the country was under attack by Russia. Was that really so?

I don't think this is an exact presentation of the situation. As early as April, the tension was growing between Georgia and Russia, and we knew it. Everybody saw that the Russian air force had shot a drone over Abkhazia and that shots were being fired at OSCE cars. It's not correct to say that we were not prepared; the only thing that was not foreseen was the night attack that took place with Georgian forces against Tskhinvali; we were not informed about it. We only heard when the Russians passed through the Roki tunnel.

INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: At the end of June 2008, Eric Fournier gave an interview to Russian outlet Novaya Gazeta, where he said, ‘the international community does not consider Abkhazia and South Ossetia serious problems, we have Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq; nobody in Brussels is considering sending international forces to the Caucasus region; the European Union does not have extra soldiers for an issue of such small importance and this is actually a Russian affair because the main player in the region is Russia.’ We reminded him of this interview and asked him if it was still his view.

“I would need to see the text,” he told us. “And I don't see the point of double-checking interviews made 10 years ago; so I don't see exactly what the meaning of this quotation is.”

You said you considered Russia the main player in the region, and the issue of the conflict of small importance, and all this in June, well after April, when you say the tensions started to grow. Was that your view and has it changed?

I don't think this idea of a small or large conflict makes sense when diplomats are trying to solve conflicts, and our main concern was to find a solution to the conflict, not to put a scale on this or that conflict. You have to remember that at that time there were other issues as well, and I suppose that we have to see everything in a different context: we are not going to go back into the international situation of 2008, but there were indeed many other issues at stake at that moment.

The August 7 attack is considered a pivotal moment. Some in the West blame the Georgian side’s morning attack for sparking the original violence. What's your take?

This idea of finding a culprit and elaborating on who started what, and when, was not considered a priority by France at that time. I could quote Kouchner, because I remember very well that he said the point is not to know who attacked, but to find a way out of the war, to sign a ceasefire and to negotiate in order for the refugees to have a safe haven. So, I don't want to be dragged into the question of who started it; again, it has been documented enough, and we know precisely what happened there: in short, there were provocations from both sides during the 4-5 months prior to August, including minor military action. A drone was shot down over Abkhazia, an OSCE car was shot at: provocations were coming from both the north and the south.

Provocative to whom? What did you see as provocation from the Georgian side?

Well, the rhetoric was extremely aggressive, and there were provocations on the field from both sides. I don't remember the exact condition or the precise moment, but there were provocations which were documented by OSCE observers, and we kept on calling on both sides to cool down. There was shooting from both sides, retaliation shooting, civilians being kidnapped by the South Ossetians, and so on and so forth, and of course I'm not going to blame anyone for that, because the main point was that at that time, Georgia was trying to strengthen its control over its territorial integrity, and so it was a perfectly legitimate action from the government. But of course, other people, such as the so-called authorities of South Ossetia, did not see it the same way. So, there were growing tensions. The same applies for Abkhazia, by the way.

We often hear that Saakashvili and his government were warned not to provoke or attack Russia. Did anyone ever tell Russia not to provoke Georgia?

I can confirm that there were regular talks with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on such issues, and I also served in Russia before, so I remember very well that in the framework of regular exchanges with Russian diplomats, we were talking about many issues and passing messages through. So, I'm sure that at that time many diplomats from the West made regular requests to the Ministry in Moscow to be told the intentions of the Russian government and to find out whether there were any preparations for a conflict. I remember from my colleagues in Paris and in the OSCE in Vienna that we discussed the incidents which had taken place on the line of control between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia and there are many moments when diplomats in the West raised their concerns about the rising tensions.

Discussing and raising concerns is one thing, but was there any attempt to put a red line to Russia?

Well, you know red lines: sometimes you don't see them at night, and I think many incidents were taking place at night, many things were confusing and worrisome, but it was not considered, probably wrongly, as a moment where tough action needed to be implemented to stop those provocations, and we can regret that, but there were warnings sent to both sides.

Imagine your children are victims of bullying at school and you go to the school to find out what the situation is. The teacher tells you that that they told your son not to provoke the bully. Does that not reflect what happened in Georgia?

That is an illustration of the childish game taking place at the time; somehow, unfortunately, there was a lack of responsibility on many sides; it is something we can all regret, that this provocation could have been stopped by a schoolmaster. To keep to your metaphor, who should have said “enough is enough: kids go back to your class and behave!”? That did not happen, but we did our best to prevent that sort of talk to both sides. Yet, despite numerous ambassadors regularly going to the ministries in Moscow and Tbilisi to make sure that nothing bad would happen, we couldn't stop the war.

Who would have been that schoolmaster?

The United Nations Security Council of course; this is where peace is decided, theoretically, and the schoolmaster at that time was, or should have been, the Security Council of the United Nations.

Of which Russia is a vetoing member

Yes. For many years, the Security Council had a special group which was dealing with Georgia: a group of diplomats working to find a solution to the Abkhazian dilemma, a group which proposed the presence of United Nations soldiers in Abkhazia to monitor the peacekeeping process. It was all very much under the control of the United Nations, so there was a schoolmaster at that time.

Let’s go back to your personal experiences during the war. You were in Sachkhere as we know

The ceasefire was signed on August 12, and I went to Sachkhere on the 19th as there were indications that Russian troops were moving towards Sachkhere, planning to continue their military movement on the territory of Georgia, which I considered a violation, or a possible violation, of the ceasefire, and as a representative of the President of France who had signed the agreement, I considered it my duty to make sure that the ceasefire was implemented all over Georgia. We left for Sachkhere the morning after we received news that there was a movement of troops. The trip was a bit difficult because we had to cross many checkpoints controlled by Russian troops, so it was quite a challenge, but eventually we got there. We decided to have a ceremony on the military base to reiterate that this base had been ruled and managed with the cooperation of French military forces, and therefore it was my duty to protect that base, and so [we raised the French flag there] to demonstrate our support to Georgia, but also to the peace agreement.

How could you be sure that it was enough to deter Russian troops? It was quite a risk

Well, we’d heard that mostly Chechen soldiers were moving towards Sachkhere, but the Mayor of the town could not confirm whether they would come and attack it or not, so it was a gamble that my presence on the base would prevent an attack. There were journalists from Georgia there, and some from France, broadcasting. Perhaps it was considered a moment of non-conventional diplomacy, but after all, it was a very routine thing to present the Georgian and French flags on a base.

But it was in the middle of a raging conflict, something a soldier needs to be doing, not an ambassador

I’d been to Sachkhere before, and when [I raised the flag], it was a peaceful area, there was no attack, it was quiet, so I could not say it was in the middle of a conflict, and the ceasefire had been signed one week before. So, you may consider it risky, but for me it was just moving freely on Georgian territory after the ceasefire.

On your journey back, you were apprehended by Russian border guards

We had to return to Tbilisi of course, and we did it after a night spent in Sachkhere. On the way to Gori there was a checkpoint where Russian soldiers told us that they had instructions not to let anyone through, so we were stuck there. There was no way we could continue the trip and I didn't want to go back up to Sachkhere. I waited and protested, referring to the ceasefire agreement and the fact they had no right to prevent me, an ambassador, from traveling freely. But the soldier was having none of it, so I decided to call my contacts. I called the Georgian authorities first because I was a diplomat appointed in Georgia, I called the OSCE, who could not do much, but they agreed to send observers, so we waited a while. Two military people from the OSCE came and just inspected a Russian tank then left, so finally I called John David Levite in Paris, who was a diplomatic advisor to Sarkozy, and he called the Kremlin and asked them to explain why they were preventing me from moving, and so the Kremlin said “Okay, there is something wrong, we will check it out” and thereafter a general from the Russian side called me from Russia and asked to speak to the soldier. I handed my phone to the soldier and the soldier spoke to his superior who told him to let me pass, and that is how the tank moved back and allowed me to continue my trip to Tbilisi safely.

You, yourself said it was a piece of unconventional diplomacy, and the media reported that President Saakashvili offered a toast to you and described you as the craziest ambassador in Georgia. Was that reputation deserved?

That quote and story was taken out of context. After the war was over, and once the tension had decreased, some French people who supported Georgia wanted to organize a concert for the IDPs near Zugdidi, and so a lot of singers with a lot of equipment came, and a concert was held, attended by maybe 10 or 20,000 people. At the end of the concert, the Georgian authorities organized a supra in a beautiful place not far from Zugdidi, in a castle, and all the musicians were there together with President Saakashvili, myself and others, and there was a traditional banquet as only the Georgians can organize, with shashlik and chacha and wine and dancing and so on. It was a really traditional moment of Georgian culture and during that evening, very late at night, we all started to sing and to celebrate things and that is when President Saakashvili, as tamada, gave a toast to me and said that I was the craziest ambassador. It was a late night after much celebrating, a moment at the end of the war, with people united in peace and friendship. Those are the facts, and for a diplomat, facts are important. Everything has a meaning.

Find out what Ambassador Fournier had to say about the 2008 Ceasefire Agreement in next week’s Georgia Today.

By Vazha Tavberidze


Saakashvili presents an award to Ambassador Fournier in 2011 just before his departure, in the Tbilisi Presidential Palace

11 October 2018 17:00