Russian media coverage of the fighting in Southern Ossetia

August 9, 2008
Well, it's not looking good right now in South Ossetia, a republic that Georgia and most of the rest of the world recognizes as part of Georgia, but which the South Ossetian and Russian governments consider independent. Russian troops have been stationed in South Ossetia for years, where the Russian ruble is the currency and where most people have been given Russian citizenship. Today, some of their soldiers were killed when Georgian troops attacked in an apparent effort to retake the region. Russian troops then responded in force, sending tanks across the border. I won't go into details about what is actually happening there, since the facts are in dispute and my only access to news right now is Russian television. However, I can make a few observations. 
Russian TV

First of all, it is no small coincidence that Russian media has been comparing this conflict so frequently to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Indeed, Russia has been following a policy not unlike the policies followed by the European Union and the United States vis-a-vis Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Russia recognizes South Ossetian independence, and for years has stationed its soldiers there as "peacekeepers." The message seems to be pretty clear: what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If the United States and Europe are able to detach Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and--most recently--Kosovo from Yugoslavia, then Russia can detach South Ossetia from Georgia. 
Secondly, considerable bitterness towards the United States is being exhibited on television. State-run television in Russia has commented a number of times on the presence of a large number of retired American generals--many of whom, it is emphasized, had experience fighting American wars in the Balkans in the 1990s--operating as military consultants in Georgia. Russian television has also been complaining about "propaganda" in the American and British media coverage of the war, pointing out that CNN, the BBC, and other news organs have emphasized the story of Russian tanks entering South Ossetia, rather than the fact that Georgian troops had entered South Ossetia first. 
Thirdly, as cloyingly patriotic and ridiculously one-sided as Russian state television has been during this crisis, what I find most depressing about listening to those hacks is the extent to which they remind me of the their American counterparts. It's one thing for stooges working in government-owned media in Russia to act this way, but what's the excuse of the American media?
I expect to see a lot of anti-Russian vitriol in the American media in the upcoming days. Indeed, I'm already seeing a lot of anti-American vitriol in the Russian media. My main hope is that the vitriol comes to an end and people can go back to their lives.
Also--maybe I've just been brainwashed by Russian media, but I don't believe that Saakashvili would have done this without an American green light. It's hard to believe that Washington could exercise such bad judgment, but I wouldn't put anything past the adventurers in this administration.
One thing that everyone has to keep in mind is that the United States and Russia have, for fifteen years, been fighting proxy wars for influence in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. While in the United States we view American policies vis-a-vis the former Yugoslavia as having been undertaken in the interests of protecting human rights and national rights of self-determination, Russians tend to see American actions in this regard as cynical acts of naked aggression.
Sound familiar? If it does, it's because that's how most of the American media will no doubt portray Russian actions in South Ossetia. I'm not saying that what the Russians are doing is right--but why should Slovenian or Croatian self-determination in 1993--or Kosovar independence in 2008--be more inherently just than South Ossetian self-determination? On the other hand, if Russia is allowed to defend its national integrity in Chechnya, why can't Georgia do the same thing in South Ossetia?
There are, of course, double standards on both sides. Russia and the United States are both following what their leaders consider to be their national self-interest, and neither side has exactly cornered the market on moral international behavior. Everyone should therefore do themselves a favor by not getting carried away with their rhetoric and doing their best to work this problem out before things get out of hand.
I guess it's a good thing I haven't bought my Moscow-Tbilisi plane ticket yet.
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