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Analysis & Opinion
14.08.08 Ungodly Silence
By Dmitry Babich

“Russia is losing the information war” is, by and large, the only kind of critique of the Russian government that can be heard from state-owned federal television channels, from which most Russians get their information about events in the country. This “defeat” is explained by the numerical superiority of the “enemy forces” – the media of the United States and Britain, as well as the anti-Russian lobby in the countries that former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “the new Europe” – the pro-American regimes in Poland, the Baltic countries, and Ukraine. These countries often strive to be “more catholic than the Pope himself,” outdoing the old NATO members – France, Germany and Italy – in their critique of Russia.

Indeed, the solidarity visit of the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Estonia with the Latvian prime-minister to Tbilisi was widely broadcast on Russian television, with the leaders of these countries standing side by side with Mikheil Saakashvili at a meeting on Tbilisi’s central square. The message of the Russian television was clear: since all of these regimes enjoy particular popularity in Russia due to their presumably biased attitude toward any of Moscow’s moves, the show of solidarity with Saakashvili could only speak in favor of the Russian army’s action in the eyes of an average Russian citizen. Stories about the losses among the Georgian population and the continued presence of Russian army contingents in some areas of the Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia do reach the Russian audience, as does news about Western indignation toward Russia’s actions. However, most people hold the opinion that Russia had no choice but to get involved. This conviction is made stronger by the reports about the consequences of Georgian troops’ atrocities in South Ossetia during the first days of the fighting on August 7-8.

“The American administration’s warnings about the worsening of relations between the United States and Russia make me indignant,” Russia’s representative in the UN Vitaly Churkin said. “Not because I underestimate the importance of these relations. But when we get reports about thousands of people being killed in one day, how can we talk about any sort of relations, geopolitics or anything else?! What can be more important than human lives?!”

The official Russian and South Ossetian government sources initially estimated the amount of casualties from the first day of the Georgian attack against South Ossetia at 2,000 people. Two days later, the figure was lowered to 1,600 people. On Thursday, the Russian parliamentary commission headed by the Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council Alexander Torshin confirmed the figure of 1,600 victims among the civilian population, adding the information about the losses in Russia’s peacekeeping contingent: 74 soldiers killed, 16 wounded.

These figures are indirectly disputed by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights NGO. In its report, HRW said only 44 corpses of killed civilians were brought to Tskhinvali’s clinics. These figures caused indignation among Russia’s human rights activists.

“I talked to my sources in South Ossetia, and they all count the number of killed civilians by hundreds and thousands. People report the presence of corpses on the street and I can’t believe it was impossible to take 44 corpses away from the street in five days,” commented Valery Tishkov, an expert on interethnic relations in Russia and a member of the Public Chamber, the most influential Russian civil society organization. “So, I don’t believe these statistics of Human Rights Watch, which is known for its cynical and wrong attitude toward Russia.”

Human Rights Watch is known for its numerous reports on the atrocities of Russian troops in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Reports from members of the Public Chamber’s special commission, investigating war crimes in South Ossetia, give credence to Tishkov’s position.

“The town of Tskhinvali was transformed by bombardment beyond recognition. Traces of the bombardment of living blocks are for everyone to see,” Alexander Brod, the director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights said by mobile phone from Tskhinvali. “People are indignant about the fact that the Russian army reacted too late, coming only after the Georgian attack, which was largely unexpected. But they are even more angry about the attitude of Western powers which were silent during the first day of bombardment and do not even intend to send humanitarian aid to South Ossetia.”

In its statement, Brod’s Moscow Bureau for Human Rights denounced the “passive and one-sided reaction of the international community, European human rights groups and the UN, which did not even offer help to South Ossetia faced with a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Indeed, the attitude of Western countries, which prevented Russia from increasing its peacekeeping contingent in the area in the months preceding the Georgian invasion and obviously condoned Saakashvili’s aggression, is criticized by many in Russia, including some avowed liberals.

“By silence is God betrayed,” said Sergei Ryakhovsky, the leader of Russia’s Evangelical Church and also a member of the Public Chamber. “On the first day of Tskhinvali’s shelling, I called my friends, Protestant parsons in the United States, Germany, and Britain. They all said that their countries’ media did not tell them anything about the bombardment. Not a single Protestant church made a statement denouncing this premeditated murder. This will not be forgotten.”

Alla Gerber, the head of Russia’s Holocaust Foundation and also a member of the Public Chamber, thinks that the Chamber’s commission should spread its activities beyond the borders of South Ossetia.

“The fact of the Georgian attack against Tskhinvali is indisputable,” she said at a press conference at the RIA Novosti News agency. “But we should think why not a single country, except Cuba, supported Russia’s position. We should visit not only Tskhinvali, but also Poti, Gori and Senaki, where the presence of Russian troops was reported by Western media.”
The source
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