Suggesting that the Russian Military Action in Georgia Last Year Was not a Glorious Military Success Does Not Imply Support for Mikheil Saakashvili
Even though some eight months have passed since Russia’s war with Georgia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August of last year, both parties are still feeling its consequences, and remain very sensitive to interpretations of these events that appear in the media. While the Russians continue blaming the Georgians’ aggression (and even made a movie about it), the Georgians insist that they have fallen victim a bully. Anyone who believes the truth to be somewhere in between is said to belong to the enemy camp.
Russian viewers will be treated to the first film about the South Ossetia war on the weekend, “Olympus Inferno,” which promises from the trailer and the director’s comments to be a high-octane action movie that shows that Georgia started last year’s war.
From watching the trailer, my first thought isn’t geopolitical, it’s “why on earth did they bother to cast someone in the role of an American biologist who speaks English, only to dub him back into Russian?” One of the lead protagonists of Olympus Inferno is an American scientist who happens to be in South Ossetia researching a rare species of butterfly. If Russians really can’t bear to read a subtitle, then I don’t know why they didn’t just have him speak Russian with a dodgy accent. If Hollywood needs a Nazi, they tend to use someone speaking English with a German (or British) accent – surely this is a better option than casting someone to speak English and then dubbing them back.
Anyway, now that that important point is out of the way, the political message of the film is obviously going to be quite important too. The repercussions of last summer’s war are still being felt in both Russia and Georgia. The Russian media have been carrying reports that Russian draftee soldiers were not paid for their time serving in South Ossetia. Meanwhile, protests coming up on April 9 in Georgia are clearly going to be very dangerous for Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, and some highly suspicious arrests of the opposition have been going on in recent days that might seem more suited to neighbouring countries like Azerbaijan.
The problem with the war, even now, is that attitudes toward it are so polarised. Probably nothing has done more to convince many Russians that the Western media are anti-Russian; meanwhile the one-sidedness of Russia Today or other Russian channels on the conflict leaves me feeling queasy.
But contrary to what many Russians seem to think, suggesting that Russia may not have covered itself in glory in South Ossetia doesn’t imply support for Saakashvili. I’ve always been a bit of a sceptic of Saakashvili, and it’s true that a lot of the Western reporting on Georgia before last summer was rather naive and tended to take all the noble words the Georgian president said about democracy and neo-imperialism at face value, while ignoring some of the less savoury aspects of his regime. But I think that since the war, the Western media – or the printed media at least – have struck a reasonable balance, reporting on the atrocities that were carried out by Ossetians under the eyes of Russian troops, covering various pieces of evidence that suggest that Russia was looking to provoke a conflict all along, while at the same time accepting that Georgia was responsible for sparking the war and waking up about the real nature of Saakashvili’s regime.
Yet still I hear from irritated Russians that the Western media got the war “wrong” – portraying Russia as neo-imperialist invaders. The idea seems to be that all reporting should be fitted into a George Bush style dichotomy of with-us-or-against-us. If Russia is criticized, this somehow implies Saakashvili loving. At the same time, Russians are so pleased that Saakashvili turned out to be everything they had warned the West about in the first place that there is no space for introspection about how their own army fought.
So while the Russians go ahead with the propaganda film (and the episode in the trailer where a wild-eyed Georgian soldier is running with a cocked pistol and screaming madly suggests it will certainly be propaganda), and the Georgians continue to cry about their scary imperialist neighbour and claim that last year’s war was a brave defensive response to invasion of their territory, sensible outside observers will surely continue to ignore both dodgy versions of events. As so often in international relations, the truth is surely that both sides behaved appallingly. Last year’s war was rather like an obnoxious little kid picking a fight with the school bully and getting crushed. That the bully had been behaving badly before doesn’t make the kid any less obnoxious, and vice versa.