|ANALYSIS: Propaganda supplants reality in Russian-controlled Georgia|
|August 19, 2008|
DEUTSCHE PRESSE AGENTUR
By Alissa de Carbonnel
Vladikavkaz, Russia/Tskhinvali, Georgia - The propaganda of Russian state television dictated civilian consciousness in South Ossetia during the brief but bloody war with Georgia as the tragedy was mirrored back - narrated from Moscow.
Facts were hard to come by as independent journalists were allowed only controlled access to the region in the first days of the war.
Russian state-owned television station Vesti24 monopolized coverage, with round-the-clock broadcasts of bloodied soldiers, tearful refugees and gutted buildings in the separatist capital of Tskhinvali.
The scene's were real, but the accompanying accusations that the Georgian offensive was genocide - flashed in bold quotations against the black-and-white reel of devastation - were not backed up.
In dozens of interviews, South Ossetian refugees told of Georgian war crimes after days of cowering afraid and hungry in their cellars under heavy Georgian shelling. Few however, on being pressed, could testify to witnessing atrocities.
'We were waiting for them (Georgians) to come and kill us ... They threw grenades into cellars full of people. They were shooting children on the street,' said Fatima Kodoyeva, one of the more than 20,000 refugees who fled to Russia.
'If it weren't for the Russians, they would have killed us all,' she added in words repeated by many of those interviewed.
In the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz, just across the Russian border, the hospital was flooded by wounded men, but there was no sign of injured women or children during three separate visits.
But apparently deliberate exaggeration by Russian officials of the death toll among the population of 70,000 fuelled ethnic revenge attacks against Georgian enclaves in the region.
'The torching of houses in these villages is in some ways a result of the massive Russia propaganda machine which constantly repeats claims of genocide and exaggerates the casualties ... This is then used to justify retributions,' a Human Rights Watch report said.
Doctors in Tskhinvali and Valdikavkaz on Tuesday said 334 wounded had been treated and 47 dead had been brought to the city morgues since the start of conflict.
Many dead in and around Tskhinvali were temporarily buried in backyards and the smell in wrecked buildings pointed to other bodies, but there was no evidence to support the figure of 2,100 civilians killed claimed by South Ossetian officials.
Authorities have not made public a list of the dead.
Restrictions by the Russian authorities on foreign journalists entering areas being burnt and looted in South Ossetia and Northern Georgia made timely reporting impossible.
Reporters on Russian-organized tours of the conflict zone were shut in armored personnel carriers with no view of the violence.
The mood among the Russian military guard on the first such tour was jovial as they were cheered by civilians in Tskhinvali. 'Next stop Tbilisi,' one Russian soldier joked.
'I agree we lost the information war in the first few days, but we have nothing to hide here,' Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov told journalists.
Klyuchnikov said the APCs were to keep journalists safe from ongoing Georgian sniper fire.
Some Russian media protested over the lack of access for their international colleagues, but others took a different view.
A Russian NTV crew refused to drive a journalist to the Georgian enclaves, saying: 'You have completely the wrong approach.'
'What is your position on the war,' they asked.
Two groups of irregular fighters from the Russian side of the border on the road back to Vladikavkaz said they had been 'cleansing' Georgian villages near Gori, but could not name the areas because they didn't 'understand that Georgian scrawl.'
The fighters, distinguished by white arm bands worn on top of mismatched army rags and sneakers, said they turned in their arms to the Russian army and were waiting for buses.
Their comments supported earlier reports that the Russian army was enlisting irregulars at a recruitment centre in Valdikavkaz, which recruited Cossacks and experienced fighters from across the Russian Caucasus.
Irregulars like these were key to gaining winning autonomy from Tbilisi for South Ossetia in the early 1990s.
When correspondents were bused to Gori, a Soviet-era film about Georgian-Russian friendship, Mimino, was playing on the monitor as they looked out on long stretches of Georgian homes almost entirely reduced to ashes.
The Russian military escort ensured the journalists arrived to witness Russian relief efforts, as elderly and invalid ethnic Georgians were brought out of the charred buildings.
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