Sunday, August 24, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Pre-Positioned Journalists in South Ossetia Before Conflict Started

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 24 – The day before Georgia introduced forces into its breakaway region of South Ossetia, there were 48 Russian journalists there, one of the clearest indications yet that Moscow not only knew Tbilisi was planning to introduce forces into that breakaway region but also was planning its own military response and wanted to ensure both were extensively covered.
Said Tsarnayev, a Chechen freelance photographer with Reuters, told RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service that he had gone to South Ossetia to take nature pictures and that he was surprised to find what RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore yesterday said was “a virtual army of Russian journalists at his hotel”
The Chechen journalist said that “at the hotel, we discovered that there already 48 Russian journalists there. Together with us, there were 50 people. [But] I was the only one representing a foreign news agency. The rest were from Russian media, and they arrived three days before we did, as if they knew something was going to happen.”
He added that “earlier at the border crossing [into South Ossetia], we met one man who was taking his wife and children from [that republic’s capital] Tskhinvali,” yet another indication that at least some people there were aware of what the Georgians were about to do and what Moscow was planning to do in response.
“Late that night,” Whitmore says in his write up of Tsarnayev’s statement, “armed conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia,” a development that lends weight to the Chechen journalist’s account and “is consistent with mounting indications that Russia had been planning an attack on Georgia in advance and was just waiting for a pretext to carry it out.”
As the RFE/RL journalist points out, “Russia's state-controlled media seemed extremely well-prepared to cover the outbreak of armed conflict in Georgia. [TV] immediately presented elaborate graphics with news anchors and commentators appearing to stick to disciplined talking points accusing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of aggression, and the Georgian armed forces of genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
And while some Western commentators and officials appear to have accepted Russian claims that Moscow was only responding to Georgian “aggression,” Whitmore makes clear, there is a great deal of evidence that Moscow not only begin planning to intervene in Georgia months ago but took other steps in addition to pre-positioning journalists.
Not only did the Russian government introduce additional troops into its peacekeeping contingent and moved at least some of its military units closer to the Georgian border during an “exercise,” Whitmore reports, but on August 3, South Ossetian officials “began evacuating hundreds of children to Russia.”
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now at Washington’s Brookings Institution, told RFE/RL that Tbilisi “should have understood” from what Moscow was saying and doing in the weeks before the conflict broke out “that the Russians were looking for a pretext.”
By introducing Georgian forces into South Ossetia, Pifer added, the Georgians “gave them that pretext,” noting that “the speed of the Russian response suggests that the Russians were ready, they were just waiting” for an occasion when they could do what apparently they had long wanted to do.
By pre-positioning journalists and by ensuring that the Kremlin’s line on the war was prepared for dissemination to them, the Russian government put itself in a position to guarantee not only that its version of events would be the one almost all Russians would have but also that Moscow-based Western journalists would get the Kremlin’s version first as well.

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