Goodies or Baddies?


Open war has broken out in Eastern Europe and with our news agencies managing only a very ordinary effort to cover the complexities of the conflict, this week blogwatch is looking deeper for some insight into the Russian-Georgian war.

The Georgian Government may have lost ground militarily, but they won the early PR battles with their side of the story. Most mainstream news framed the conflict as "Russian aggression", leaving out large chunks of the back-story to what have been called the "frozen conflicts" on Russia’s borders.

A surprisingly moderate version of this take has appeared on the OpenDemocracy site by Ghia Nodia, a minister in the Georgian Government (and we republished it last week). Less surprisingly, though, it still sees Russia as the aggressor, while its own use of lethal force in cracking down on separatists in South Ossetia was merely an example of Georgian naivety in "falling into a Russian trap".

The context of [our military action]should be understood, however. For months, the Georgian forces inside the enclave within South Ossetia loyal to Tbilisi – as well as those forces across the de facto border – had been systematically attacked using artillery fire and other means. The obvious aim of this was to draw Georgia into an open military confrontation with Russia. Everybody on the Georgian side understood this very clearly, and all efforts were made to avoid such an outcome. However, by exerting this pressure, the Russians – through its puppet-regime in Tskhinvali – were putting the Georgian government into a lose-lose situation. Yes, engaging Russians in an open military confrontation was against Georgian interests. But, by helplessly watching how its citizens were systematically attacked and killed, the Georgian government was losing its credibility incrementally.

Nodia also tells an anecdote about an alleged Russian insult to NATO – part of a strong set of messages from the Georgian side attempting to broaden the conflict, including President Mikheil Saakashvili’s piece in the The Guardian on Friday saying that:

Russia’s invasion of Georgia strikes at the heart of western values and our 21st-century system of security. If the international community allows Russia to crush our democratic, independent state, it will be giving carte blanche to authoritarian governments everywhere.

Meanwhile, there has been a rush by more analytical voices to put the conflict and its coverage in some kind of historical perspective. At the onset of war, The Guardian‘s Paul Walker wrote that the media had already resorted to the "Bear Index" of Russian power to explain the situation to their stupefied audience:

The method is simple – the more references, oblique or direct, to Russia as a bear, whether cuddly or fierce, the greater the mistrust of Moscow. Well, today the Bear Index went off the scale.

Mary Dejevsky of The Independent, smelled spin in the way Georgia’s ally the US was responding to the crisis:

Within hours [of the initial ceasefire], the United States envoy to Georgia was spinning a whole new myth to the BBC about how it was only through decisive US intervention – by which he presumably meant the warplanes laden with humanitarian aid by then ostentatiously parked at Tbilisi airport – that the mighty erstwhile Red Army had been turned back.

The many Georgians who had counted on more timely and robust assistance from their US protector surely laughed a bitter laugh.

It is only the latest and most glaring in a series of Western misrepresentations and misreadings of Russian intentions throughout this sorry episode. They began with the repeated references to Russian "aggression" and "invasion", continued through charges of intended "regime change", and culminated in alarmist reports about Russian efforts to bomb the east-west energy pipeline. None of this, not one bit of it, is true.

Anyway, how did hostilities begin? Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia. The status of that region – which declared unilateral independence – is anomalous […]But did anyone describe it as "aggression"?

She makes a valid point, and it’s about now that a handy chronology of the lead-up to the Russian action would be very useful. You can find exactly that, and some interesting analysis too at Russia blog, where the failings of the mainstream media on this topic are also examined.

Foreign Policy blog looks at the endgame of the conflict from the Russian perspective, and quotes Russian President Dmitri Medvedev saying that it’s "unlikely Ossetians and Abkhazians will ever be able to live together with Georgia in one state."

Other sites around the world have been interested in the conflict in their broader geopolitical context, with Creative-I pointing to the hundreds of Israeli and US "military advisors" in Georgia. The blog is among many which see Israel, Georgia’s key weapons supplier, as a player keen to support Georgian opposition to Russia as a way of countering Russia’s support for Iran.

Linked to this strand of commentary are the points emerging everywhere in the blogosphere about US support for Georgia and the crucial role many are saying they had in lighting this fire. DC Indymedia say neo-conservative elements in the US have sought to trigger the war in an attempt to create a political landscape that will favour McCain’s presidential campaign.

There’s a lot to this situation which remains vague, and there’s the feeling that a lot more is yet to emerge. It’s the kind of environment which allows the conspiracy blogs to flourish, which is great, if you like that kind of thing.
(Overlook the spelling and grammatical mistakes, enter the flow, and feel your miiinnd beennd.)

Meanwhile, Open Democracy has also been publishing a translation of a blog by "pepsikolka", a resident in Poti on Georgia’s east coast, a city unlucky enough to be the site of a Georgian naval base which has been attracting Russian bombardments and also tank movements – Georgian or Russian, pepsikolka’s not always sure. The blog has been called a fake by some, but it has a very genuine-sounding confusion to it, and the primary message he puts across is that he just wants it all to stop so life can return to normal.

If, as appears likely, more of these "frozen conflicts" come out of cryostasis, there are likely to be a lot more people like pepsikolka, who would much prefer the tense stand-offs they have been living under. It’s not exactly peace, but at least it’s not war.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.