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Analysis & Opinion
18.08.08 Local Win, Global Loss
Comment by Silvio Pitter

Superior military power has allowed Russia to “win” the military conflict in South Ossetia, paving the way for Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s auto-determination. But was the war really about these two regions?

By proving to the world that its safety and existence were threatened by Russia, Georgia’s leadership is now possibly closer to the West – and certainly to the United States – than it was only a few days ago. Georgia played this conflict both at the military and the media levels. It engaged in the former with the short-term goal of provoking Russia’s reaction, and in the latter with the long-term goal of winning Western support.

Russia, instead, interpreted and played this conflict at the only level it is currently capable of -- the military level – showing increased frustration toward Western media instead of recognizing it as a decisive component in the crisis.

A brief analysis of how Western-advised Georgia and Russia engaged with the press during the crisis can help initiate a debate about Russia’s need to build effective mechanisms and strategies in order to see its interests and actions recognized globally.

On the Georgian side, Mikheil Saakashvili’s continuous appearances on CNN resulted in the creation of a direct communication channel between one party involved in the conflict and global news viewers. In addition, as the nearly exclusive source of information coming from Georgia, Saakashvili progressively gained international credibility in the eyes of the public: the president was the “face” of the country partaking in the conflict.

An analysis of Saakashvili’s speeches on CNN shows that a few key ideas were repeated over and over, including that Russia “invaded” Georgia to end its “free and democratic” course and because of the latter’s “friendly relationship” with the West; Russia’s actions evoke the “Soviet invasions” of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan; Russia’s goal in the conflict is to “conquer” Georgia and ultimately take control of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyan pipeline, a key energy infrastructure for the West.

While in the interviews all these ideas were combined in a rather chaotic manner, they were carefully picked out with one goal in mind: to be appealing to a Western audience. These messages, addressed directly to Western people, live and in English, formed a simple “story” about the ongoing events that won the attention of the international media and contributed to convincing the global audience.

On the other side of the conflict, Russia’s first reaction - from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Beijing - initiated a counterproductive dualism with President Dmitry Medvedev that added confusion to Moscow’s official position during the crisis. Dozens more statements followed from a relatively large number of actors, which prevented news viewers from associating the country with a recognizable representative, and eventually hurt the credibility of Russia’s messages. In addition, the lack of coordination among the speakers resulted in Russia’s failure to provide the global audience with a credible “story.” In this dual confrontation, South Ossetian people, with their president, parliament and civic organizations, never really became part of the picture painted in the international media. Eduard Kokoity’s statements were rare and mainly failed to make it outside of the Russian press.

As people all around the world were quickly developing their own opinion about the conflict, they were ultimately influenced more by Georgia’s claims than by Russia’s arguments.

The lesson Russia’s leadership should learn from the South Ossetian conflict is that winning global recognition has become key to developing influence and power in today’s world, not only in international competitions, but also increasingly in local arenas. While Russian authorities would need to address this issue through a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s global identity and its external perception, I provide here a few recommendations that might have helped Russia to improve its presence and credibility in the international media during the conflict.

Firstly, Russia should have selected a few value messages to be repeated in all official statements – long before the conflict broke out – providing global viewers with a clear and convincing “story” as of why and how it was going to get involved in South Ossetia. These messages should have been tailored to target an external – mostly Western – audience, using carefully selected terms to make sure Russia’s position was effectively received.

Secondly, only a handful of people should have been entitled to express Russia’s official position, using the above-mentioned value messages, during the conflict. This team should have included at least one person fluent in English and possibly other foreign language speakers (First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov’s interview on CNN was a step in the right direction).

Thirdly, a media center should have been created, where international journalists would have been able to get easy and direct access to information provided by the authorities. Regular briefings and Q&A sessions – with the support of maps and videos – would have helped to avoid much of the misrepresentation seen in the media (interestingly, after his first appearance on CNN, Saakashvili was advised to hang a map of Georgia behind his desk and referred to it several times in the following interviews for the benefit of Western news viewers).

Fourthly, access to South Ossetian refugees should have not only been allowed, but facilitated. South Ossetian people suffered the most from the conflict, but they were surprisingly kept out of the global press coverage. In order to include them in the picture, the above-mentioned media center could have been created in North Ossetia, next to or within the refugee camps that are currently being created, providing international journalists with easy access to first-hand information.

Lastly, a small team of international communication experts should have been created to assess the status of the conflict’s coverage by the media in key foreign countries. While the value-messages mentioned in point one should apply to all global audiences, local nuances and nation-specific interpretations need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, to make sure messages are effectively received by each target audience.

Silvio Pitter is an independent consultant in the field of nation branding and nations’ global identity. He holds a Master’s degree in European and Russian Studies from the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and currently works in New York City.
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