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War of the Words

Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, Georgia

"Everybody out. You have 20 minutes to inspect this damage," barks Alexander Machevsky, shock-trooper of the Kremlin’s propaganda war in Georgia, as he tries to shepherd 25 Western journalists out the open back of a military truck. Machevsky is not having a good day. As one of Vladimir Putin's senior advisers and an official presidential spokesman, he's had to come back early from his summer vacation to lead this slow-moving group of foreign correspondents around a half-ruined Georgian village just north of Gori--the eastern city Russia occupied during the war this month. And his guests are not exactly the most cooperative. At one point, Machevsky gestures towards a row of bombed-out buildings and explains, "The Georgians have been claiming that this [wreckage] was caused by Russian forces. However, that’s not the case. There were gas-leaks, lights were left on, there was criminal activity and of course cases of arson--this was specifically done by Georgian special commandos."

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."

Like the United States and Israel before it, Russia is learning the hard way that twenty-first-century wars are played out almost as much in the treacherous battlefield of the international media as on any actual battleground. Months of low-level shootings around the borders of the break-away republic of South Ossetia erupted into war on August 7, when Georgia mounted a full scale assault on the capital, Tskhinvali. Tbilisi soon recognized its mistake, however, when Russia troops poured over the border in retaliation. Within four days, Russians forces had practically destroyed the U.S.-and Israeli-trained Georgian army and moved far beyond the borders of South Ossetia, occupying the strategic city of Gori in the heart of the country.

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 Georgia--and would render Russia’s military victory, which has only succeeded in cementing Russia's image as a neo-imperialist and barbaric state, worse than useless.

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 Prague in '68 or Budapest in '56. They are invading and occupying Georgia just as they have done in the past."

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. Georgia has also benefited from the toughness contest that is the American election: John McCain's strong messages have repeated the framing of Russia's actions as imperialist, referring to Russia as seeking to rebuild, not the USSR, but the "Russian Empire." Such rhetoric has shifted the focus of the coverage away from the actual events of the crisis--such as who started shooting first.

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 Georgia does. By portraying the South Ossetians as valiant defenders of freedom, the new Kosovo Albanians, the Russians are stretching the facts beyond credibility. Russia's actions in South Ossetia are not parallel to NATO's in the former Yugoslavia by any stretch of the imagination, and no one has forgotten Russia's pre-invasion flights into Georgian airspace or the troop build-ups that have been going on behind the Russian side of the border. It's just not believable for the Kremlin to argue that it's acting selflessly in the matter--and Machevsky's misinformation-filled presentation, ironically, only fuels the "Russia-as-imperialist-overlord" narrative.

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 Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the propaganda battles are taking their toll.

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.

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By Ben Judah