27 August, 2008

What is the truth in Ossetia?

Just as the fog of war dissipates from Georgia and we can finally determine the truth of what went on, politics distracts the Western media.

A few observations:

  • Russian politicians publicly congratulate themselves for their high-minded actions to arrest genocide in the Georgian province of South Ossetia. The Kremlin has recognized South Ossetia and also Abkhazia as independent nations.
  • Russian citizens, meanwhile, wonder why the West does not report the stories their see in their media of Georgian crimes in Ossetia. This extends to Russians residing in the West, who feel betrayed by a Western media that has been, quite frankly, somewhat credulous of Georgian claims, and simultaneously skeptical of Russian claims. My wife showed me a short video that they showed on Fox News a while back where some Americans of Ossetian heritage who were in Tskinvali when the bombs started falling denounced Georgia for their actions. My wife doesn't distrust me, but she does find it hard to believe that the Russian-language internet tells a story completely opposite to that told by Western media. The Russians cannot believe that Western reporters, escorted by the Russian military, are not finding much corroboration of the Russians' claims of a systematic genocide.
  • A short while back, a correspondent for Komosomolskaya Pravda wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post arguing that because American newspapers weren't reporting without question the line stated by the Russian military, it was clear that American newspapers no longer enjoyed freedom of the press. Amazingly, there was not a hint of irony in her entire article. True, she writes for Komsomolskaya Pravda, and as I reported earlier, their notion of serious, truthful reporting is inviting readers to submit topless photos, so you have to grade her on a curve, but from what I read, she is not alone.
  • Reader and weblogger Clemens, with whom I have had many spirited disagreements, described in a recent comment that a Russian colleague of his complains about, and I quote, "Stalinism!! In this country!!"
Indeed. If I only I could find that phone number for our secret police, I'd report the man without hesitation.

I've made a half-hearted effort to follow any report I can read on this, in any language I can read reliably—that would be English, Italian, and Latin, but (sadly) not Russian—and I was quite aware of the Russian government's claims. Within a day or two of the initial Georgian assault, the Russian military made disturbing claims that the Georgians were engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, having killed 2,000 Ossetians. That may not sound like much, but you have to keep in mind that at last count 45,000 South Ossetians resided in the area. Exterminating 5% of the population within two days would likely make the world's most famous Georgian sit down with Georgia's current president and ask for pointers.

I was also aware of the Georgian government's counterclaims. These included claims that Russian planes tried repeatedly to bomb the oil pipeline that passes through Georgia. (If so, the fact that by all accounts the pipeline is just fine ought to trouble the Russian military.) An op-ed by President Saakashvili claimed that the Russian military was already entering Suth Ossetia before the Georgians invaded, and that Ossetian forces, protected by Russian soldiers in Ossetia, had increased their bombing of Georgia. The Georgians have also made accusations of genocide.

Whom to believe? I wasn't sure, although, as I implied in that earlier entry, I wasn't about to trust the Russian government without some hard evidence.

As I alluded at the beginning, more recent news has emerged in Western media from reports who have actually visited Ossetia. The most important one is that the Russian military is revising its count of Ossetian dead. According to a report in Monday's Washingon Post, page A1,
Russian officials adjusted their figures last week to 197 dead -- 133 Ossetians and 64 Russian soldiers.
A regular genocide, indeed.

(Speaking of a "free American press", only the determined reader will find this information. The online version of the Post buried the news on page 4.)

Elsewhere in the article, we find this.
"Nobody told us about any mistreatment, any cruelty by the Georgians as they entered the houses," said Anna Neistat, a senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, who spent several days interviewing witnesses in South Ossetia and Russia.
Contrast this to actual genocides in Kosovo (both before and after NATO's adventure there), Rwanda, the Third Reich, Belarus, Turkey, or the former Cherokee nation. In none of these cases could you fail to find an abundant number of eyewitnesses to incredible crimes.

The Post authors found and interviewed some Ossetian civilians who had been taken prisoner by the Georgians. They gave more or less the same presentation of events. One of them,
Rita Bestaeva, an Ossetian, said she and several others were captured by Georgian soldiers Aug. 8 and held overnight on the Georgian side of the border. They were not physically abused, she said, and were released by a Georgian special forces member who sneaked them out and took them back to the edge of South Ossetia in his jeep. "What he did was brave and kind," she said, "but after what I have seen, I still think the Georgian army is shameful."
A good Ossetian patriot, but not exactly a ringing endorsement of Moscow's original version of events either.

By contrast,
The worst violence was committed by the "irregulars" -- South Ossetian militiamen and others who joined the Russians as they came in.
Now, that does correspond to what I understand of real wars. These irregulars would be men whom the Russian military's propaganda had inflamed into a frenzy.

Question: Do you think any of this is getting play in Russian media? Is the Russian military's own revision of the number of dead Ossetians receiving attention in Russian media?

I'd love to know, but to tell the truth, I'm unwilling to ask my wife, let alone my sister-in-law. I simply don't want to revisit that territory. One has to remember that in Russia the invasions of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia are continue to be viewed as necessary to the building of a great nation, if not heroic. Russians continue to argue that they have the right to tell the Estonians what they can do with statues in the Estonians' own capital. They will complain that, after all, one-third of Estonia's population consists of ethnic Russians, to whom Estonia refuses to grant passports. This is true. Russia itself has not issued passports to these ethnic Russians, so these poor souls are stateless.

Now here's an interesting item in the news: Russia did give passports to ethnic Ossetians in South Ossetia, back in 2004. Isn't that odd?

As a footnote, I'd like to point out two things.

(1) Ordinary Russians might trust the Western media more if our fiction would not unrelentingly portray citizens of former Soviet republics as corrupt, criminal, and/or crazy. In some cases novels adapted to the screen have replaced Arab terrorists with Russians. Honestly, the last positive portrayal I remember of a Russian in film was 2010.

(2) As far as I can tell, South Ossetia wants nothing to do with Georgia. This animosity dates no later than 1990 or so, when the rulers of the Soviet Republic of Georgia revoked South Ossetia's autonomy and seemed to be heading towards a disaster along the lines of what the Serbs were trying to do in Yugoslavia. Something similar occurred between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. (I was actually paying attention to some of this. Why, I have no idea.) To avert catastrophe, Boris Yeltsin sent in Russian peacekeepers to separate the sides, and these never left.

In my idealistic mind, if Ossetians are so overwhelmingly anti-Georgia, the Georgians ought to let them go their own way and become a small republic of their own, dependent most likely on Moscow. The Georgians and Ossetians ought indeed to resolve this dispute politically, and both ought to be generous to the other: the Georgians can grant South Ossetia independence, and the Ossetians can agree to redraw the borders so that the areas whose population is overwhelmingly Georgian can be given back to Georgia.

Of course it would never work.


Clemens said...

My Lord, man. You and I must be the only two people south of Wasilla to have followed the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. That part of the world is intensely interesting.

"My wife showed me a short video that they showed on Fox News" Our Mad Cossack mentioned this very video! Proof that our media is controlled! He almost shouted in the middle of the hallway.

BTW, he and his wife were natives of North Ossetia and feel they were forced to flee due to Ossetian nationalism. And he STILL hates the Georgians and doesn't understand why the Russian view isn't reported more fairly.

Among other things he thinks they are wimps who can't finish what they start. He says he knows this from street fighting when he was a kid.

"The Russians are Comming! The Russians are Coming!" was relatively benign in its view of Russians. Saw "Night Watch" which is actually a Russian movie, and I can't say it made me want to visit Moscow. Last Russian movie I saw was "Mongol," a bio-pic about Genghis Khan. Now there was a man who could straighten out the region.

On the whole I seem to agree with you on the Georgia situation. It is not as one sided as the West likes to paint it.

jack perry said...

You and I must be the only two people south of Wasilla to have followed the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

I should note that I didn't follow it very carefully; I was aware of the conflict between Armenians and Azeris and worried over it. Obviously I paid some attention since I brought up the name without looking it up; that is, it's off the top of my head.

Our Mad Cossack mentioned this very video! Proof that our media is controlled!

I really don't understand the chain of reasoning here. There was another refreshing story yesterday I think in the Post where an American journalism professor who has been working in Georgia discusses the deficiencies of Georgia's democracy and seems to rate matters as not much better than Russia. He doesn't quite take the line taken by Western media on the conflict, so the story was interesting. That said, "refreshing" is not the same as "convincing". I've gotten to the point where merely reading "journalism professor" in a byline leaves a sour taste in my mouth—too many of them seem possessed with quasi-messianic levels of self-importance, including a guy at Ole Miss whose article runs regularly in the local paper. When merely shooting rubber bullets at protesters counts as a mark against democratic development, with no further explanation of the event, I start to discount the author's opinion.

Last Russian movie I saw was "Mongol," a bio-pic about Genghis Khan. Now there was a man who could straighten out the region.

I would strongly discourage you from saying that to a Russian, but you know that so there's not point. :-) When I was a PhD student a colleague made some crack about Genghis Khan that set the one Russian in our group off like a firecracker.

Clemens said...

Yes. The Tatar Yoke. Much maligned by the way. Actually, there are some of us that blame Russia's ills on the Rus' from Sweden. Or maybe it was the Byzantines. But something sure led to some exotic historical ideas over there.

(though they did defeat Hitler for us)