Posts tagged ‘georgia’

20 February 2009

Russia’s Free Press Hoax

Interesting piece by William Dunkerley on In Russia’s Free Press Hoax, he responds to a recent New York Times editorial, one of numerous such articles which claim that Vladimir Putin stifled Russia’s free press. Dunkerley argues that there was no free press to stifle in the first place.

His evidence:

1. The Yeltsin administration nipped press freedom in the bud. It imposed laws that gave media companies little hope of operating profitably. And without profitability, the press had no way of achieving independence. Instead, the media companies became dependent, not free, and most remain so today.

2. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], 15 journalists were murdered during the period of Putin’s presidency. What the “murdered journalist” stories fail to report is that in the previous 8-year period, there were 31 murders! In other words, under Putin, the number of journalists killed was more than cut in half.

While I’d phrase the criticism differently (less emphasis on “mis”information and more on “a particular perspective on” information), I agree that there is a definite shift in the attention paid to killed journalists under Yeltsin (not only CPJ, but also Reporter sans Frontiers (RFS) give a similar number of killed journalists, which they report as having decreased under Putin).

What I find crucial to this discussion is the desired aim. Ignoring hard news for the moment, what do editors hope to achieve when they blame Putin for the deaths of journalists? Putting this more discoursively, what is the function of such editorials; what ‘action’ do they carry out? Editors – and the commentariat in general – generally make recommendations for change, whether explicit or implicit.

If the reason for the deaths is Putin, the recommendation must be to reduce his power. The trouble is that

  • (i) according to the CPJ and RSF websites, the majority of journalists who were killed were investigating stories associated with organised crime and/or business corruption,
  • (ii) this means that when grand sweeping statements are made about these journalists being critics of the Russian regime and/or Putin, the editorial in question completely loses credibility in the eyes of the Russian public and politicians. This in turn means that
  • (iii) no-one feels the need to tackle the problem.

The core problem, according to CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme researcher Nina Oganiova, is that murders of journalists are not followed up in the legal system. This is a serious issue in Russia, but it seems hypersimplistic to report this as Putin’s control over the media (although, again, this is not “mis”information, but a particular perspective on a piece of information).


Finally, I must jump to the defence of the journalists (as a proper anthropologist I might say “my” journalists) criticised by Dunkerley. There is a strict distinction to be drawn between

  1. very well informed, thoughtful, perceptive and/or insightful foreign correspondents based in Moscow,
  2. deadline-driven, desk-based, non-expert journalists who turn agency news into printable news stories often in less than 45 minutes, and are therefore thoroughly embedded in locally accepted knowledge of what Russia is doing at the moment and what meanings are to be assigned to these journalist deaths, and
  3. Washington Post editors (who seem to have some particularly deep axe to grind; see the discussions on Johnson’s Russia List).


And very finally. my personal favourite of the NYT editorial comes nearer the end:

So far Mr. Obama has been quiet about Russia’s latest efforts to bully its neighbors. He will have to find his voice. After its war with Georgia last year, Russia defied international law by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Do we really need to go into who bullied who and who started what in Georgia again? Perhaps we could just refer to an old NYT article for details about what could as easily be called Georgia‘s war with Russia. Other articles discussed the hypocrisy of the debate on the legitimacy of recognising the independence of some former communist states but not others.

30 December 2008

Tanks moving towards Ossetia

Apparently, reports have been made that Georgian tanks are moving back towards the South Ossetian border. Love the discussion on this blog, where the first comment noted that “And while the world is watching Israel, Russia decides it’s time to move things along slowly… quietly….”. S_he was corrected and noticed the mistake (“LOL. Sorry”)… Ah, how hegemonic configurations frame our readings… (Although a later comment on the same blog probably has a point: I wouldn’t be surprised either if Russian, Georgian, Ossetian military were all on the move in the region.)

19 December 2008

Caucasus Analytical Digest

The first issue of the Caucasus Analytical Digest is now available: “Perspectives on the Georgian-Russian war” (download pdf here).

The Caucasus Analytical Digest (CAD) analyzes the political, economic, and social situation in the Southern Caucasus within the context of international and security dimensions. Subscription is for free.

CAD is a monthly internet publication jointly produced by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi (, the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (, the Jefferson Institute in Washington, DC ( and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich with support from the German Association for East European Studies (DGO).

Although written in a different style to the RFE/RL Caucasus Report (where RFE/RL is primarily a news service, CAD offers more analytical, although also fairly short, articles), it promises to offer more balanced and reflective accounts of events in the region than those available at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

28 November 2008

Georgia Update

The story continues on Reuters.

Ex-envoy: Georgia thought US backed Ossetia assault
By Matt Robinson

TBILISI, Nov 26 (Reuters) – A former Georgian ambassador said on Wednesday that Georgia had wrongly convinced itself it had U.S. blessing for an assault on breakaway South Ossetia.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, former envoy to Russia, told a parliamentary commission on Tuesday that Georgia had been the aggressor and triggered a war with Russia in August that proved to be disastrous for Georgia.

President Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed the comments as “simply untrue”.

Since his testimony, Kitsmarishvili has been vilified by senior Georgian officials, underscoring the difficulty of expressing dissent in the ex-Soviet republic since the war.

24 November 2008

War of Images

The Caucasus conflict was a central topic at the “European Television Dialogue” on 20 November, in particular the way the media reported it. Quote of the day today comes from Deutschlandfunk’s reporting of the discussion. Talking about the different ways of dealing with information and foreign correspondents, Stephan Stuchlik, correspondent for the main German television station ARD, said:

On the second day I tried to get into Tskhinvali. I waited for seven and a half hours at the border, and I only managed to get into South Ossetia with extremely Russian methods. Whereas the Georgian side immediately understood: aha, we need to offer journalists a service. There were little buses going from Tbilisi, driving people there and saying: Something really awful has happened here; here are the relatives, feel free to ask them. (my translation; full text here).

Deutschlandfunk’s report continues by telling listeners how Stuchlik tried to get his editors to cover the victims and eyewitnesses who spoke of Georgian atrocities. His reports met with disbelief:

You could see that the three days of anti-Russian reporting had left its mark. Not only on the public, but also on my bosses and the news editors.

And once again, we see the dispositif at work: Journalists are based in Tbilisi, are bussed into the region by their Georgian hosts. It fits a certain expectation that the Russian army will have been involved with atrocities. The Georgian leadership activates welcoming information managment techniques; local news and bloggers are onside. At the same time, the Russian side fends off the western journalists (annoying them in the process by making their work more difficult) rather than welcoming them into their information zone. Thus is hegemony is fed.

I still think one of the most interesting things about the conflict, however, is that – contrary to Stuchlik’s comment – the first three days of reporting did not leave its mark on very large swathes of the public. Why, in this one incident, did so many people not believe the reporting? They usually have a good deal of faith in western reporting when it comes to Russia, but not this time. Answers on a postcard to…

8 November 2008

Georgia-Russia Update

Updates on the conflict in the Caucasus are coming in every day. The New York Times headlines ‘Georgia Claims on Russia War Called Into Question’ and ‘Georgia Fired More Cluster Bombs Than Thought, Killing Civilians, Report Finds’.

Tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday, BBC World is showing the Panorama special “Should we be scared of Russia?”. Interestingly, the Panorama website description of the 30 minute programme begins thus:

The sight in August of old people and children cramming onto tractors and into carts to flee from Russian tanks has rekindled notions of Russia as aggressor and oppressor.

The short war between Russia and Georgia began when Georgia invaded its Moscow-backed breakaway republic of South Ossetia last summer. Russian troops stationed there were killed and Russia retaliated by invading Georgia.

Whereas the BBC World News website description of the same programme begins thus:

A reinvigorated Russia is flexing its muscles on the world stage again, leaving a battered Georgia in its wake. Panorama speaks to those in Putin’s inner circle to find out what the Russians are really thinking and what it means for the rest of us.

The sight in August of old people and children cramming onto tractors and into carts to flee from Russian tanks has rekindled notions of Russia as aggressor and oppressor.

I’ve always been a fan of comparative discourse analysis.

p.s. BBC World News is showing “Should we be scared of Russia?” on:

Saturday 8th November at 0730 GMT. Repeating on Saturday at 1530 and 2030 GMT and on Sunday 9th at 0130, 0730, 1530 and 2030 GMT.

24 October 2008

Hegemony and Moskalenko

The mercury found in Karinna Moskalenko’s car may have come from a barometer that the previous owner of the car had accidentally spilled, according to the French authorities (see Le Figaro, BBC, IHT). When Moskalenko, a Russian lawyer whose clients have included Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the family of Anna Politkovskaya, was recently diagnosed with mercury poisoning, she feared the mercury was planted intentionally to poison her and her family. Indeed, she then remained away from the opening of the trial over the murder of Politkovskaya.

Peter Lavelle sums up almost exactly what I was thinking:

When the story broke that the lawyer for slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was allegedly suffering from mercury poisoning, I braced myself for the now standard reaction: “Putin did it”. When it comes to Russia, the West’s commentariat refuses to use logic or attempts to investigate. The fact is, writing sensational stories about Russia sells and serves time-honoured stereotypes, prejudices, and reinforces a sense of Western hubris. Actually, I am a bit surprised the global financial meltdown has not also been pinned on Putin!

At the time, The Washington Post wrote:

Perhaps this was an unfortunate accident; the police in Strasbourg say they are still investigating. But history suggests otherwise. Numerous opponents of Mr. Putin have been killed or gravely sickened by poisoning.

Yes, the standard reaction. But I do disagree with Lavelle on ‘stereotypes’ and the western commentariat’s lack of logic. There most definitely is a logic at work here: a hegemonic logic. In Lavelle’s words:

Some dots were quickly and erroneously connected: “Kremlin critic – dead journalist – lawyer – poison – Kremlin.”

At any one time, and/or in any one place, there will be a set of expectations, conventional understandings, political exclusions and inclusions, sets of norms and values, leading definitions, etc. All this makes up the fully formed hegemonic (in Gramsci’s sense) discourses of that time and place.

Russia is one of the prime examples of media hegemony. By no means do the media speak with one voice (Lavelle and other bloggers are not the only exceptions), but by and large, when something vaguely political happens, the immediate interpretation is that the Kremlin was to blame. Be this Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, Ukraine’s gas, Estonia’s computers. The ‘dots’ are connected and a binary opposition is set up: Kremlin vs. The Others.

New information appearing on a journalist’s radar is embedded into this already existing binary. If someone is not an associate of the Kremlin, they must be in danger from the Kremlin. I am quite convinced that most of these news reports are not ill-intentioned. Journalists see their job as passing on the most recent newsworthy information they receive. Of course the initial news story is more likely to be noticed and remembered than the small correction printed later.

Lavelle challenges the comentariat ‘to grow up and get real’. Maybe there is something in this. If more individuals shift the discourse, as he does in his in-depth analyses of Russian politics, then the current hegemony will be destabilised. But this only addresses part of the problem. Individuals alone can only do so much to change such entrenched discourses. A fundamental aspect of most significant social or political transformations is a serious ‘dislocation’, i.e., a moment when conventional understandings break down and can no longer help us to make sense of events.

I am watching carefully what happens in the wake of the conflict in the Caucasus. The standard reaction there was also that Russia invaded. The Sunday Mail wrote of Russian ‘barbaric’ ‘slaughter’ of civilians. And then it turned out that western intelligence reports answered the Spiegel’s headline ‘Did Saakashvili lie?’ with ‘yes, he did’.

This is a massive dislocation for most western observers. Wait a minute, they have to think, the standard interpretation doesn’t fit. Georgia-the-innocent-victim-attacked-by-Russia doesn’t wash.

Not that Russia was the innocent victim. But now is the chance for new hegemonic projects — new reports which offer a different take on events — to gain media space. In this phase of dislocation, there is less need to argue with the (old) hegemonic account of events. Instead, it’s time to offer new interpretations, new vocabulary, new discourses. This should (optimistically) be the time when even the Washington Post is open to stories from an ‘alternative’ commentariat.

15 October 2008

The Hague on Russia-Georgia

DeutschlandRadio’s hourly news bulletin this evening presents the “surprising” final ruling made by the International Criminal Court on the case brought by Georgia alleging Russian human rights abuses in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Judges called on both Russia and Georgia to halt human rights violations in the region. (Background text and photos).

The level of surprise will depend, perhaps, on which media the listener has been observing.

Update: 00:18. Watching BBC World news, and wondering if I misheard the German radio. Nothing on the BBC about the story. But, yes, according to a Reuters story posted on Wed 15 Oct 2008 at 2:37 EDT, a provisional court ruling was indeed made:

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The UN’s highest court ordered Russia and Georgia on Wednesday to ensure the security of all ethnic groups in the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and adjacent areas of Georgia.

In a provisional ruling on a lawsuit filed by Georgia that alleged human rights violations by Russia in the region, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said Georgia and Russia must refrain from sponsoring any act of racial discrimination.

It also ordered both parties to do all in their power to ensure the security of persons, freedom of movement and the protection of refugees’ property.

The court ruled it had jurisdiction to order the provisional measures and ordered both parties to inform it of their compliance.

Court rulings, including provisional orders, are binding but the court has no police force to enforce its decisions. A judgment on the merits of the case proper could take at least another year.

2 October 2008

McCain and Obama on Russia

US observers react to comments made by McCain and Obama on Georgia during the presidential debate.

For Edward Goldberg in the Washington Times, the drastic over-simplification of the conflict in South Ossetia is irresponsible:

McCain’s ‘sloganeering’ on Georgia irresponsible

U.S. citizens basically have only two choices in elections – simplicity rules. But the issues facing America are nuanced and complicated. And nowhere is this more true than in foreign policy.

The situation in Georgia and the Caucasus is a prime example. How easy it was for Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, to reduce a complex problem to simple sloganeering when he stated, “We are all Georgians.” The immediate implication was that Georgia is the current equivalent of Cold War Berlin.

But this is not only a misreading of history and a misunderstanding of where Russia is today in its historic cultural conflict between westernization and despotism. It is also an example of irresponsible sloganeering from someone who wants to lead the United States.

Patrick Shirak on not only described the two candidates’ presentation of the conflict to the US voting public as ‘over-simplified’ but also as ‘dead wrong’:

McCain & Obama Are Both Wrong on Georgia

The next American president, together with the efforts from European allies, must address failed strategies of the past in order to prevent the West (and Georgia for that matter) from stumbling into an expanded war in the Caucasus.

After watching the first presidential debate between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, one of the only lasting thoughts on my mind was how over-simplified they present the ongoing conflicts in Georgia to the American public, and how dead wrong they both are in seeking to address them. […]

The conflict that erupted in South Ossetia in August, very well could have started in Abkhazia earlier in the year.  These regions have been involved in two very unique secession struggles with the central government in Tbilisi since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The fact that these regions continue to provide sparks of violence in the volatile Caucasus is testament to the failure of international and Georgian policies towards them.

The attempts to reunite Georgia according to its Soviet borders have over the last fifteen years have focused on 1) isolating South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the outside world, 2) refusing to recognize the legitimate concerns of the local populations, 3) incorrectly addressing the conflict as solely and primarily between Russia and Georgia, and by 4) stubbornly following dogmatic policies long after they have already shown themselves to be failures.

The next American president, together with the efforts from European allies, must address these failed strategies of the past in order to prevent the West (and Georgia for that matter) from stumbling into an expanded war in the Caucasus.

With thanks to Johnson’s Russia List for the texts.

1 October 2008

Georgia and South Ossetia

According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, a leading European Commission official has said that Georgia unleashed the conflict in South Ossetia. As of yet, a search of the news database LexisNexis and leading news sites suggests that no western news media are reporting this yet. (Update 3 Oct: still no reports.) Kommersant:

Head of the European Commission Directorate General for External Relations Eneko Landaburu has agreed that Georgia unleashed the conflict in South Ossetia, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the EU Nikolay Kobrinets told RIA Novosti Tuesday.

According to Russia’s official, Mr Landaburu acknowledged that Georgia unleashed the conflict in South Ossetia during the discussion dedicated to relations of Russia and the EU held at Belgium’s representation office at the EU, Brussels, October 1, 2008.