The fourth estate on the conflict in the Caucasus

These days the Russians do not take the Western press at its face value, as they did before August 2008. The Western media, which they once regarded as a model of objectivity, accurate reporting and for many an ideological benchmark, has lost its former place in Russian public consciousness. The main reason for the change is the way the media in the US and Europe has covered the armed conflict in South Ossetia and the events that followed.

The Russians who witnessed and were involved in these events, were close to the conflict-ravaged regions and had a hands-on feel of the strength of the Gordian knots in the Caucasus were puzzled at the one-sided and biased coverage of the conflict in the Western press. Puzzlement often gave way to irritation and outrage over the bellicose anti-Russian position of the bulk of European and American media.

Suffice it to recall the main theses that filled the European and American media to be promptly picked up and spread via international agencies, television and the Internet to Latin America, Asia and Australia.

To sum up the theses: Russia is an aggressor which has attacked a small country with a young but vibrant democracy in order to occupy part of it or all of it. With a ruthlessness corresponding to the Kremlin's official doctrine of neo-imperialism the mighty Red Army bombed Tbilisi and other peaceful Georgian cities while columns of Russian tanks trundled into the country's interior. Naturally, the wild bands of Red Army men marauded and looted their way through Georgia destroying the vastly superior Georgian civilisation. The casualties among Georgian civilians are appalling, the civil infrastructure is being methodically destroyed and the population is experiencing untold suffering.

Standing out of this set of premises are the psychological elements that appeal not so much to reason as to the emotions of the audience. The attack of a strong and cruel country on a weak and vulnerable one cannot but provoke indignation. The atrocities perpetrated by hordes that have invaded a civilised country and the suffering they inflict on its people inevitably provoke sympathy for the oppressed and righteous wrath against the barbarians. By the way, the term "Red Army" resurrected after 60 years in oblivion and widely used by Western journalists is not a slip of the tongue. In the mind of an average European - a European more than an American - the words "Red Army" conjure up the gruesome period at the height of the Cold War, nuclear confrontation, Stalin's satanic smirk, the ordinary man's fear of an imminent World War and pictures of Russian tanks in the streets of London or Paris.

Many fears of the "resurrection of Red Army" are reflected in western cartoons:
View gallery

These theses resurrect the still fresh clichés about Russia which had been drummed into Western public consciousness for decades and still survive on its periphery, so that they are taken for granted and never questioned. To confirm this I can cite a participant in a debate in the August issue of "Russia Beyond the Headlines" on the site, in which we tried to present the Russian perspective on the South Ossetian events. The American reader, who chose to remain anonymous, spoke for many when he wrote: "Russians can't be trusted... They completely lied about the ceasefire. Once a commie, always a commie."

One must hand it to most Western journalists and editors that they are crafty in getting their message across to the audience. I say crafty because professionalism, among other things, implies a balanced and objective treatment of information, serious arguments and reliance on accurate sources. In the event these features are absent from most of the articles, reports and television stories. For example, the claim that Russia has been swept by the imperial spirit is supported by the conclusion that "the Russian leadership seeks to restore the Soviet Union". This categorical conclusion is drawn from Vladimir Putin's philosophical reflection to the effect that the disintegration of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. One can challenge or elaborate on this thought, but it hardly provides grounds for such sweeping generalisations.

"Russian troops enter Georgia" - Financial Times

You can see the cars on the video have got Georgian vehicle identification numbers and the soldiers are wearing Georgian uniform.

Watch it on the official Financial Times site

or here:

Reports about "marauding", "looting" and "violence" of the Russian soldiers are not supported by any figures or facts. However, endless repetition of these claims as something established beyond reasonable doubt makes arguments and facts redundant. If something is "well-known" it becomes an axiom and needs no proof.

Watch how CNN uses footage of Tskhinvali ruins to cover Georgian report on the YouTube

Another gimmick is to quote some stunning figure. The Western press has bandied about the figure of "138,000 Georgian refugees". For a country with a population of 3 million it is indeed a staggering number. But reading the European and American newspapers that cited the figure I could never find any references to its source. Refugees from where? Over what period? Who made the count? The events last August were not the only armed ethnic conflict on Georgian territory in the last 20 years. That said, such questions arise only if you think about it. If you take the information of established and respectable media for granted, there is no room for doubt. In other words, the reputation of the media outlet is seen as a guarantee of accurate reporting.

Yet even they are not infallible. In an analytical article on South Ossetia published in a respectable Washington daily I came upon the following sentence: "As Russian forces loot and occupy a neighbouring state, conscripting Georgian civilians at gunpoint to sweep their city streets..." It makes me laugh. A respected political observer seriously reduces "looting" and "occupation" to the sweeping of streets, which suggests that the "hordes of bandits" want the streets to be clean and that the invaded "civilians" are lazy and can only be made to clean their streets "at gunpoint". But of course the main message of that sentence is that Russians "loot and occupy". That is the phrase that etches itself on the mind.

Another information device widely used by the Western press over the past month is to do with Georgia's behaviour in this conflict and the policy pursued by Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgia is presented as a victim of "Moscow's expansionism", which suffers not only because it has the misfortune of having the aggressive Russia for its neighbour, but because it is committed to democracy. The Georgian democratic idea is squeaky clean and innocent: to join the European community and NATO, for good measure. Russia, seeking to keep Georgia within its orbit, resorted to an invasion, crushing a small but proud democratic country with its armour. To create a semblance of objectivity, part of the blame for what happened is placed with Saakashvili, who "failed to show restraint and yielded to Moscow's provocations". He "fell into the Kremlin's trap by engaging it militarily, with a predictable outcome" as the military engagement had long and thoroughly been planned by the Russian leadership.

The most widely used method in delivering these theses to the Western public is hushing up the facts. The Western media hushed up the Russian view of the causes and history of the conflict, the Russian arguments, not to speak of the arguments of the Ossetians or the Abkhazians. This sometimes went to tragicomic lengths. I am not going to recall the now famous Fox News interview with the Ossetian girl and her aunt, eye-witnesses of the events, when they were literally muzzled up as soon as they began speaking about what they had seen with their own eyes. Their stories gave the lie to the information that preceded the interview. That instance of "freedom of expression" has already been widely discussed.

A less well-known case is the editing of the exclusive interview Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave to the German TV channel ARD. The final version of the interview dropped entire passages in which the Prime Minister set forth the Russian position on the conflict. Putin's words were doctored, individual phrases were plucked out of context. Some of these dealt with the West's "bloc thinking", the killings of Russian peacekeepers by the Georgian troops and the atrocities of the Georgian army in occupied Tskhinvali. We had a chance to compare because Russian television ran the full version of the interview, including the sometimes sharp questions from ARD's interviewer, Thomas Roth. By any professional ethical standards such copious abridgements of sensitive material should have been agreed with the interviewee. And of course it is not the done thing to edit interviews with a statesman of such rank. One wonders whether the German TV channel would have dared to do the same to an exclusive interview with Condoleezza Rice or Angela Merkel.

ARD scandal
Chronicle of the scandal
Thomas Roth's blog post about the interview
(automatically translated webpages)

Full interview on video (in Russian)
Full interview transcript (in German)

The Internet is full of a video shot by a Georgian soldier with a mobile phone. There are signs that the soldier later died or was taken prisoner or simply lost his telephone during the chaotic retreat from the South Ossetian capital. In the video cheerful Georgian tank men shoot from a heavy machine-gun at blocks of flats in Tskhinvali after it had been pounded by artillery and rockets. The video is circulated online, but so far no Western TV channel or Western newspaper has reacted to it.

Watch this video on the YouTube
Download it from our site - mp4, 7 Mb

Download another mobile video shot by a Georgian soldier - avi, 3.5 Mb
Watch it on the YouTube

If the Western media really wanted their audience to form their own opinion of the events in South Ossetia last August and remain objective and unbiased, they should not have hushed up facts. Ethnic and border conflicts in the Caucasus are complicated and confusing, they have a long history and there are multiple facts that can be used to gain an insight into the situation. It is impossible to report all of them. But both European and American audiences were entitled to know at least about some of the most significant facts.

For example, the fact that the hostilities were launched in the early hours of August 8 by the Georgian Army by shelling and firing rockets at the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and by air raiding the sleeping city. Also the fact that on that same night regular Georgian troops attacked a Russian peacekeeping contingent with tanks and heavy artillery, killing 10 and wounding about a hundred peacekeepers. The fact that Georgian artillery and tanks had flattened eight Ossetian villages around Tskhinvali, that in the early days of the conflict 34,000 people, almost half of the country's population, fled from South Ossetia to Russia. The fact that on the third day of the conflict Georgia declared that it was in a state of war with Russia.

Or the fact that the events of August 2008 were Georgia's third attempt in the last 90 years to squeeze the South Ossetian population out of its territory. The second attempt occurred in 1989-1992, when Georgia regained independence, and it cost South Ossetia 3,000 dead and 40,000 refugees. The first attempt was made in the brief period of Georgian independence after the Russian Revolution, in 1918-1921. It too claimed thousands of Ossetian lives while tens of thousands were dispersed across the world.

Perhaps political scientists who argue about territorial integrity should have mentioned that Abkhazia and Ossetia had been sovereign states for centuries and had never been part of Georgia with the exception of a historically brief Soviet period. They unilaterally withdrew from Georgia in the 1990s and have been independent from Tbilisi for over 15 years. Georgia in its present borders was created by Joseph Stalin in the 1920s. It was Stalin who presented the two now breakaway republics as a "gift" to Georgia against the wishes of their peoples by artificially dividing North and South Ossetia. It was Stalin who set about creating on the territory traditionally inhabited by more than a dozen peoples and states - Kartlians, Kakhetians, Imeretians, Mingrels, Gurians, Khevsuretians, Svans, Adjarians, Pshavians and others - a monolithic nation of Georgians by ruthlessly stamping out the identity, cultures, languages and national consciousness of these peoples. All the governments of independent Georgia, including President Saakashvili's cabinet, for all their much-touted commitment to democracy, continued Stalin's policy of creating a mono-ethnic nation. That is why Abkhazia and South Ossetia are by no means the only ethnic problem in Georgia. In any case the Adjarians, Mingrels and Svans are, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about this policy, as they have repeatedly demonstrated.

These are not just curious historical facts of merely academic relevance. The facts that the Western press has failed to mention have very practical relevance. It is hard to imagine what Europe and the whole world would have been drawn into if Georgia chose to solve its problem with Abakhazia and South Ossetia as a member of NATO, which it is eager to join and to which some members would welcome it. Western public opinion undoubtedly was entitled to be presented with this information.

Unfortunately, the main principle that marked the Western media coverage of the Caucasus crisis was "to look and not to see," "to listen and not to hear". Could it be that another contributor to the discussion on the RBTH site was right when he gave this answer to why the West was accusing Russia and justifying Georgia: "You can explain and clarify until you are blue in the face. That has nothing to do with it. The world community understands, but they have no intention of admitting it. Their reactions to you are based on who you are. It's a kind of racism. They want you to be `lesser' and `different'. It's easier than thinking."

Finally, one more thesis trotted out by the Western media appeared after Russia recognized the independence of the two republics. "Russia must be punished", "Tough sanctions are needed", "Kick Russia out of the G8", "Trade blockade, not a cent in investments" and so on and so forth. Respectable and not-so-respectable newspapers, radio and TV channels in Europe and the US vied with each other in inventing trade, financial and political sanctions and other means of punishing Russia, offering the fruits of their intellectual efforts to governments. They did not offer them as advice, they demanded that these measures be promptly taken. The obsessive desire of the Western media to subject Russia to flogging was reminiscent of the notorious show trials of "the enemies of the people" staged by Stalin's Politburo in the 1930s. At the time all the Soviet newspapers and magazines and even wallpapers vied with each other in calling for the execution of "traitors, spies and imperialist stooges". But this was the communist party press, which existed under a regime of severe terror.

It was strange for Russians to observe how the democratic media in free countries delivered a verdict on them without giving Russia the benefit of a defence lawyer, not to speak of a trial by jury. Nobody in the West even dared to think about the possibility of exonerating the Russians, the argument was only about the method of execution, whether it should be by hanging or burning at the stake. A veritable lynching when elementary norms of professional ethics were thrown to the wind. The media has no right to pronounce verdicts, declare the culprits and clamour for execution. The media can only inform with a maximum degree of objectivity. The broader the spectrum of opinions presented in the media the higher the level of its objectivity.

Love is a reciprocal thing. Unrequited love, when one person loves and the other hates, quickly develops into a drama or bloody tragedy. One would do well to avoid such a scenario. The past month has brought it home to Russians that in spite of all the cheerful smiles and friendly back-patting that they have received since the times of perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West has a lingering dislike of them.

The Russians have a saying: "You can't force anyone to like you." We do not seek the West's love, we know what its attitude is. But we could settle for simple respect and a sober and pragmatic approach to the opportunities of cooperation and many-sided exchanges.

Media statistics from August 7 through September 10, 2008

Publication statistics on Russia's role in South Ossetian

Percentage (and number) of negative reports
Percentage (and number) of positive reports
Percentage (and number) of neutral reports
US print media and TV
75% (337)
3% (14)
22% (99)
The Associated Press
75% (430)
1.2% (7)
23.8% (137)

Print media
Negative and positive trends in covering the conflict correspond to the number of reports from Georgia and Ossetia:
Reports from Georgia - 57-87% of total number of reports
Reports from South Ossetia - 8-13% of total number of

The number of negative reports in the British press is estimated at 75-85%.

Sharply negative views are mainly expressed in on-location reports, which is understandable - correspondents present the points of view of locals who can be interviewed.

Analytical articles, whatever the points of view of their authors, draw one and the same conclusion: a local conflict is not a valid reason for a serious, large-scale confrontation with Russia.

Radio and TV
BBC, Channel 4, Sky News, ITV:
Percentage of negative estimates of Russia's actions towards Georgia higher than neutral or objective assessments - 75-80%
Information reports without assessments (of the neutral type) - 20-25%


Print media:

Neutral reports: 90%
Negative reports: 9%
Positive reports: 1%

Radio and TV:

Negative reports: 40
Positive reports (against Georgia): 22
Neutral reports: 238


Radio and TV

Neutral reports: 27%
Negative reports: 70%
Positive reports: 3%

Print media and Internet portals (chats, forums, blogs, etc.)

Neutral reports: 24%
Negative reports: 73%

Negative reports: 45-55%
Neutral reports: 45-50% (mostly reprints from overseas news agencies)

In Canada, the overwhelming number of reports - as on any other subject - are reprints of reports from major world news agencies (Reuters and The Associated Press) and leading publications in the US (The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times) and the United Kingdom (The Independent and The Guardian). These are mainly officials from Russia, Georgia, North Ossetia, the US and other countries being quoted without comment.

Neutral reports: 80-90%
Negative reports: 5-10%
Positive reports: 5-10%

Neutral reports: 77%
Negative reports: 11%
Positive reports: 12%

Study prepared by RIA Novosti monitoring service

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