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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » December 3, 2008
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
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More Questions Than Answers
December 3, 2008 By W.Ż.    
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Controversy continues to simmer over the Nov. 23 incident in Georgia when several bursts of machine gun fire were shot off near a car in which Polish President Lech Kaczyński was traveling together with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili.

One hypothesis, supported by Poland's Internal Security Agency (ABW), is that the incident may have been masterminded by the Georgians.

Some of the Polish media, quoting excerpts from a secret report compiled by ABW head Krzysztof Bondaryk, speculate that the incident, near the town of Akhalgori, could have been useful for the Georgian president as a way of diverting media attention from his internal problems. The incident coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution that saw Saakashvili take over as president of Georgia.

Three months after the start of the Russian-Georgian conflict and the effective breaking away from Georgia of its Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, Saakashvili could have been eager to show the European public that the Russians were not meeting the terms of the French-brokered cease-fire, some have speculated. This is why, the media say, Saakashvili unexpectedly proposed Kaczyński an unscheduled evening visit to a refugee camp close to the border with South Ossetia. After the incident, the presidents immediately returned to Tbilisi.

The fact that the officers of the Polish Government Protection Office (BOR), whose duty was to protect the Polish head of state, were cut off from Kaczyński and he was only protected by Georgian officers at the time of the incident, may suggest a Georgian hand in the course of events. Another fact that may suggest this is that a van carrying reporters was moved to the front of the column, which is unusual with such convoys. Moreover, the machine gun fire was not directed at the vehicles; none of them was damaged, and no one was injured.

In the first hours following the incident, the Polish foreign ministry asked the Georgians for an explanation and also approached the Russians over the incident. The following day Poland's foreign minister Radosław Sikorski met with his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Sweden and Slovenia. They all condemned the incident.

"Yesterday I had my heart in my mouth-I feared for the president," said Gen. Marian Janicki, chief of the BOR. He added he had never heard of a convoy in which a "vehicle of any kind would have moved ahead of the president's car."

Janicki indirectly accused the Georgians of a lack of professionalism, saying the visit was prepared on an ad hoc basis and the convoy was virtually unprotected.

But Kaczyński voiced a different opinion. "The problem is not that there were no BOR officers beside me, but that there were Russian forces where they should not have been," he said. "If the Polish officers had been prepared I would have probably ended up on the ground in a pose that I am not particularly fond of, and there would probably have been an exchange of fire. People could have been killed, while the way it was no one was injured."

Kaczyński says he is sure that the Russians were behind the incident. "Even if the checkpoint was Ossetian, the area is controlled by the Russians," he said. "And this is the essence of the problem-the Russians are occupying positions in which they were not present before Aug. 7, 2008."
Many Polish politicians criticized Kaczyński over the Georgian incident. "If you hold the post of president you must not behave like a cowboy shooting from the hip," said Bronisław Komorowski, speaker of the lower house of the Polish parliament.

The Georgians organized Kaczyński's trip "very badly," Komorowski said. "The Polish president was maneuvered into a situation and it seems he is now putting on a brave face," he added.

Meanwhile, Western politicians have refrained from accusing anyone of firing at the Polish and Georgian presidents. The only comment from NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoof Scheffer was that it was worrying that shots were fired at all in the presence of politicians.

Russian officials have played down the issue. "The West is not treating seriously the Georgian government's statements about the convoy with the Polish and Georgian presidents having come under fire on the South Ossetian border," said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO.
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