Ambassador Fournier on the August War, Part II

Exclusive Interview

Eric Fournier, former French Ambassador to Georgia, was, as he himself admits, an unconventional diplomat in some ways. GEORGIA TODAY and Realpolitik Talk Show spoke to him in an exclusive interview that went viral in Georgian media.

“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 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.”

Tell us about that ceasefire plan.

There was a proposal on the table, and President Saakashvili roughly accepted the document that we decided to send to President Sarkozy, who was preparing his trip to Moscow for the next morning on the 11th. Kouchner and myself took my car to Gori see what was going on. We were very affected by what we saw: there was a burning building with ladies crying in front of it, and a lot of tension in the city. It was a very intense moment, and the security of President Saakashvili were nervous because they said there were indications there could be new air strikes, but along with Minister Kouchner we decided to stay. We visited the hospital, where there were many injured people, civilians and soldiers alike, and we spent around half an hour there talking to doctors and injured people.

How successful do you think the ceasefire plan was? It stopped the immediate hostilities, but how successful was it on a grand scale considering the criticism it received?

Well, if you can quote any ceasefire plan in world history which was a success for both sides I would be glad to know; to my knowledge as a diplomat, every ceasefire, every diplomatic document, is a compromise between a bad and an even worse solution. You can take the Versailles Treaty of 1920, you can take any ceasefire: it has always generated frustration. The question is how high the level of frustration you can accept is. In this case, to get such a result after five days is something that can be considered as exceptional, because we stopped the war in five days. Sometimes matters drag on for years, four years in Yugoslavia, 14 years in Afghanistan, and it's still not over, and I can bring up many other wars which were not stopped in a satisfactory fashion. With the Georgian conflict there was no more shooting; of course it's not a perfect agreement because the consequence of this attack pushed the Abkhazian local authorities and the South Ossetians to request some kind of stronger protection from Russia, and then this protection was given to them in the form of Russia recognizing their independence.

Russian forces remain, and their positions have since advanced. They did not return to the original pre-war position as per the Agreement, resulting in the loss of additional land. This was not foreseen by the ceasefire plan.

Yes, that’s true. The independence given to South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia at that time was followed by a bilateral agreement made after August 26. The loss of control on those territories is a serious setback for international law.

Do you think there was anything France could have done to exert more pressure on Russia to stick to the points agreed in the ceasefire agreement?

I can feel the frustration in your question, but let me remind you that on August 12, when there was an agreement for a ceasefire, there was a feeling of relief, not only in Georgia but all over the world. People were glad the war had ended, that refugees could get financial support, that the European Commission had decided to dedicate an extremely large amount of money to build solid housing for those refugees – this was a relief for everyone; so yes we can always say France did not do enough, but I don't hear many people criticizing us for what we did; on the contrary, I think it is largely considered a successful negotiation.

There was a huge debate about the sale of Mistrals to Russia. In 2011 President Sarkozy said that this would not cause a danger to Georgia because he and Medvedev had an agreement to that effect.

Those discussions took place after I left Georgia, in the framework of bilateral discussions between France and Russia. I also think that speculation about the possible use of these boats against Georgia was exaggerated because Russian troops did not really need such a boat to come to Tskhinvali, of course, and Sokhumi even, because they were already there.

There are still many Western scholars who see the correlation between what happened in Georgia and Ukraine. Do you see those links?

Not really, to be frank. If you look at the situation in Ukraine in 2013, we have to remember that the population of Ukraine was demonstrating against the way Mr. Yanukovych was ruling his country. It was a demonstration against corruption. So, you cannot really compare the two situations: the roots of the two conflicts are very different. Of course, you can relate them to the EU situation; their aspirations to the EU were also at stake, but from my point of view the main issue was political fatigue mong the Ukrainian population. You cannot say that about Georgia at that time; the protests in Georgia against Saakashvili started in 2007, and not for the same reasons.

JOURNALIST'S NOTE: At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, Georgia was given a vague promise of NATO membership. The Ambassador said at the time, regarding the support of Georgia's Membership Action Plan, “it was a careful and reasonable position, and based on what happened in 2008, it was justified”. We asked him if he now thought that making a different decision at the Bucharest Summit could have prevented the war.

“I cannot change a word of what I said before because it was the position of almost the whole Alliance, which was carefully considering the advantages and risks of such a decision: there’s nothing to change to my statement,” he answered. “In Bucharest, Georgia was supposed to make a move to NATO and vice versa, but it was completely unexpected that Ukraine would come into the discussion as well, and we might wonder why some people and some states decided to push Ukraine in this direction; it was absolutely not on the agenda to discuss the integration of Ukraine into NATO, and I think unfortunately this provoked Russia in a different way, and the reaction from Moscow was probably a strong reaction of irritation to Ukraine trying to join NATO.”

We also offered Ambassador Fournier another of his quotes, given in an interview to a local magazine in which he was talking about the reasons the August War happened. He went as far back as the times of the First Democratic Republic and said, “we should find the reasons for the conflict back then when there were massacres against Ossetians during the first republic.” We asked him for clarification.

“Simple: I happen to like history, and I read books about the history of Georgia, and I was just quoting a book, I don't remember who was the writer, but it was a Georgian historian who was describing the wars between the Ossetians and Georgians in the early 19th century, and so documented the fact that a very famous Georgian military commander did horrible things to the Ossetians and there were massacres,” he told us. “There were problems on both sides, there were fights between all the people of the Caucasus; it is well documented. I was just quoting a historian.”

We pointed out that the famous commander he had mentioned was Valiko Jugheli, but to tie this to what happened in the 19one90s or in 2008 would be out of context because what happened back then was Bolshevik-initiated, and they supported and inspired the Ossetians to fight, because they did not have any land and were fighting for a place to live, and were encouraged and supported by the rising Bolshevik forces. We also noted that the use of the term ‘massacres’ is unproven, as is the use of violence by both sides. Many mistakes were made, we told him, but what was missing from his interviews was the role of the third party that was very instrumental in this: there was no mention of the Bolsheviks, without whom there’s a huge chance that fighting would never have happened at all.

“Yes you're very right, and thank you for giving the audience more details about that, but you know when you speak, you don't give a lecture on history, especially in my case; my point was just to remember, to remind them that there had been problems in the past between those two people and that it was not something completely new; of course I could have gone and said the Bolsheviks were there manipulating the local population but I was not giving a lecture on the history of Georgia.”

Would you say it was the job of the journalist to provide that context for your answer?

No, I just wonder why this man who wrote this very critical appreciation of my comment made a big fuss about it; it was just a point en passant as we say in French, and it was not a controversial thing to say; it was just a way to recall the context of 100 years ago, and when we speak about any moment of history, we can sometimes make a reference to something which took place 200 years ago; that is not distorting history, that is making a link between things which are old and complex; there was no intention to be critical.

The country took it badly because you are a representative of your country and they thought your words represented France’s position; that we were being accused of ethnic cleansing against the Ossetians

I don't see how anyone in Georgia could suspect me of lacking respect for your country and its people; I am probably one of the few ambassadors who demonstrated by his actions the true love he has for this country and I don't think this journalist represents the whole of Georgia.

Was this around the time you became somewhat more critical of what the government was doing in the country?

Well, a diplomat is not critical or admiring when he serves abroad: he just analyzes the facts and reports them in full to his own government, so I had no reason to be critical or appreciative of what was going on. I was reporting the facts and at that time it's no secret there were many problems in the democratic life of Georgia: some opponents were facing problems, there was some manipulation of the facts, there was also sometimes pressure on journalists. It was a time when people were frustrated and I don't remember expressing that publicly, but sometimes yes I might have said we are concerned about some developments taking place in Georgia. This is the role of any observer of the political life of another country.

From toasting you at a supra and giving you a medal of honor, Saakashvili went on to voice some serious allegations against you. He recently named you “an ambassador for hire” and said you gave former-PM Ivanishvili French citizenship as a gift and lobbied for him. Do those allegations hold any truth?

I cannot comment on the words of an ex-president living in exile from his own country.

And for members of Georgian society who want to know?

I trust the judgment of the Georgian people.


By Vazha Tavberidze

18 October 2018 22:18