In Russia, Nationalist Pride Prevails

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
By Frederick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

MOSCOW, Aug. 12 -- Along Moscow's famously colorful Arbat Street on Tuesday, there was a striking unanimity of views about Russia's brief, one-sided war with Georgia. While many people said they regretted the loss of life, the conflict appeared mainly to have stoked nationalist pride and anger that Russia's show of force over the breakaway region of South Ossetia had been condemned as disproportionate.

Some expressed outrage that the country had been blamed for starting the crisis. Others, echoing Russian officials and analysts, suggested there was little difference between the massive military response to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's shelling of the separatist capital last week and the NATO-led bombing of Serbia or the West's recognition of Kosovo's right to independence.

"It is not every day that 1,600 of your fellow compatriots are killed in cold blood," said Alexander Pikayev, a departmental director at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, referring to the alleged death toll in South Ossetia after the Georgian assault.

Pikayev said Russian forces needed to go after targets in and around the city of Gori, which is on undisputed Georgian territory, because it was an important staging area for Georgia's offensive. "I think that it's too early to make any final judgments, because we are talking about a complicated situation," he said.

Emotions remained inflamed here Tuesday despite Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's announcement that the operation in Georgia had been completed and that he had called a halt to Russian combat. Saying that the Russian military had had no choice but to strike back at Georgia after it attacked the rebel enclave, Medvedev added that Russia had carried out its aim to protect its peacekeepers.

"The aggressor has been punished and his military forces routed," Medvedev said.

Over the weekend, the Levada Center conducted a poll of 2,100 people in Russia and reported that 71 percent of the respondents sided with South Ossetia and sympathized with its separatist goals. Only 2 percent expressed sympathy for Georgia's stance.

The results were nearly as lopsided on the question of whether South Ossetia should remain part of Georgia, become part of Russia or become independent. Only 4 percent supported the status quo before the fighting, while 46 percent thought Russia should absorb the sparsely populated province and join it to the Russian republic of North Ossetia. Thirty-four percent said South Ossetia should be independent.

In Moscow, the nationalist sentiment was not universal. Some worried that Russia's armed response would only strengthen the hand of the prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin, and others in his circle in the Kremlin.

"I think Russia is getting more nationalistic, and I think it's been strengthened in this reasserting of sovereignty," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of studies at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Especially in the early hours and days of the conflict, Russian television stations showed Putin directing the military response and visiting with the wounded, and much of the coverage showed only Russian casualties and refugees and quoted only Russian officials. One station used graphics that called Georgia's actions "genocide." Commentators said the coverage helped fan the feeling that Georgia was to blame.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the Daily Journal, an independent online newspaper, said that even liberals and some critics of the government felt that Saakashvili's shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway province, had provided the spark for a conflict that had been a long time in the making.

"It's absolutely clear that Saakashvili was the person who began this war," Golts said. "I am even one of these liberal commentators, but it's also clear that when Saakashvili spoke on TV [on Friday], he knew for sure and had ordered the deployment for the attack."

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