Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, Georgia
"Everybody out. You have 20 minutes to inspect this
damage," barks Alexander Machevsky, shock-trooper of the Kremlin’s propaganda
A British journalist butts in: “You're not suggesting, Sasha, that the Georgians burn their own houses--are you?”
Contorting his face in disbelief, Machevsky turns and hisses in Russian to the smiling, implacable Russian colonel accompanying the tour: Wish we could kick him off the truck and leave him here. But the Brit isn’t cowed: "Sasha, I speak Russian."
But, if Russia has so far dominated the military struggle,
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has succeeded in completely dominating
the struggle over influencing the Western media, convincing global leaders to
issue stirring statements in his defense and even eliciting a declaration from
German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Georgia can join NATO. If this happens, it would be a
major p.r. victory for
The Georgian propaganda strategy--helped along by such bumbling Kremlin attempts as Machevsky’s tour of Gori’s ruins--has been two-fold: First, they’ve tried to amplify the reports of death and destruction caused by the Russian invasion, knowing that journalists, who weren’t permitted into the critical areas, would have no ability to check their claims. Secondly, and most cleverly, they’ve tried to brand the Russian invasion as Cold War redux, counting on the emotional memories throughout the West of past Russian interventions.
In Gori, I meet with regional Georgian Governor Vladimir
Vardzelashvili in his office overlooking the statue of Joseph Stalin in the
town square. Coughing and smoking, he gives me the Georgian spin on events: "The destruction is huge. There has been ethnic cleansing, use of the cluster
bomb, indiscriminate bombing and violence." When I push him for details of the
terror campaign he was describing, he gestures vaguely to a map pinned up on
the wall and begins spouting off Georgian government talking points: "Gori is
the same as
The reference to the invasion of Prague, which happened 40
years before Russia’s invasion of Georgia almost to the day, is especially deft
because of the symbolic importance of the Prague Spring--and because journalists and
world leaders love such easy parallels. Much of the coverage of the Georgian
crisis has focused on comparing this invasion to the 1968 one, including a
strongly worded piece in the August 26 Daily
Telegraph by the leader of the U.K. Conservative Party, David Cameron, and
the Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek.
Meanwhile, Russia is doing its best to fight back, with spokesmen like Machevsky peddling their own wildly inflated statistics and offering dubious opinions on the sequence of events. At one point in the press tour, Machevsky gives the civilian death toll in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, as 2,000--a number that causes discreet amusement to the assembled journalists who know, as the Kremlin’s man in Georgia apparently doesn’t, that Boris Salmakov of the Russian prosecutor’s office had just that day announced that the actual number was 133 (according to Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, the hospitals in Tskhinvali have only reported 44 civilian deaths). The journalists repeatedly ask Machevsky if they can see the cemeteries where these 2,000 poor souls are buried--a request that he, not surprisingly, denies.
Part of Machevsky's--and the Kremlin's--problem is that the
Russian government is simply not used to dealing with a free press. Putin's
regime has done so much to destroy independent Russian media that flaks like
Machevsky have little experience responding to journalists who can't be
silenced--whereas the Georgian government, more media-savvy and with its close
ties to the West, has had more room to develop its spinning skills. At the same
time, of course, Machevsky and the Kremlin have a much harder case to make than
The real victims of the propaganda war, as of the actual
war, may be found some distance from Gori's combating spinmeisters. Gori
itself, contrary to expectations (and to the fevered descriptions from both
sides), doesn’t look that bad: The damage is remarkably lighter than expected,
and certainly not even on the same scale as in Tskhinvali. But in
At the luxurious Tbilisi Courtyard Marriot, the Georgian government has set up a press center for Western journalists, with large maps of the country covered in red pins that indicate Russian troop movements. Late one evening, I observed a British journalist accidentally knock down a significant portion of them as he tried to run his finger along hypothetical Russian withdrawal routes, before scuttling away. Several minutes later, an earnest Japanese reporter appeared and took down in detail what he presumed were the new positions.
Meanwhile, in the center of the capital, School Six holds almost 400 refugees from Gori and surrounding areas who have been camped out for days in already dilapidated classrooms. Exposed only to passionately nationalist Georgian television and radio, the refugees have become tense and frightened. Dali Szarcemi, sitting with his two-year-old son and the large sacks holding their belongings, says to me, "The TV says there's been massive ethnic cleansing. They say there's been rapes, burning, pillages. It's terrible. I may never be able to return to my village north of Gori. I think Gori may be half ruined when I return. I'm a farmer--I know about cows. I have no idea what to do in the city."
Ben Judah is a correspondent for the International Security Network's Security Watch.
By Ben Judah