Mythmaking in Moscow

Saturday, August 16, 2008

THE EVENTS of the past week in the small Caucasus republic of Georgia will prompt animated debates about Russia and U.S.-Russian relations. We view the events as confirmation of the dangerous challenge posed by an authoritarian regime unwilling to recognize the sovereignty of its former imperial possessions. Many will take issue with our interpretation, and that is as it should be. But the debate should be based on facts. Instead, assertions of the Russian leadership that have proved contrary to fact continue to circulate. For example:

· Georgia committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. This charge was initially leveled by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and has been taken up by others, including President Dmitry Medvedev, who on Thursday came up with the interesting formulation that South Ossetians "had lived through a genocide." Mr. Medvedev has referred to "thousands" killed, and Russian officials frequently have cited 2,000 South Ossetians killed (out of a population of 70,000). They have said Georgia razed the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. These purported depredations are given as the main motivation for Russian military intervention.

A researcher for Human Rights Watch who visited Tskhinvali reported as follows: "A doctor at Tskhinvali Regional Hospital who was on duty from the afternoon of August 7 told Human Rights Watch that between August 6 to 12 the hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilians. . . . The doctor also said that 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital since the fighting began, of both military and civilians. The figure reflects only those killed in the city of Tskhinvali. But the doctor was adamant that the majority of people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital before being buried, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity in the city."

Independent journalists back up the account provided by Human Rights Watch. The Wall Street Journal, for example, yesterday reported finding Tskhinvali, where most of the fighting took place, mostly intact and with "little evidence of a high death toll."

· Russians in Georgia are "peacekeepers" on a humanitarian mission to protect civilians. This formulation has alternated with repeated Russian statements, repeatedly disproved, that Russian forces were not in Georgia at all, or were leaving, or were about to leave. In fact, journalists, human rights observers and others have documented that Russian troops have ranged far into Georgia, including the city of Gori and the port of Poti. They have razed, mined and looted Georgian army bases and destroyed civilian houses and apartment buildings.

Militia forces under Russian control include South Ossetians and others brought in from Russia itself -- what Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza described as "the North Caucasus irregular forces that the Russian military inexplicably encouraged to enter South Ossetia to murder, rape and steal." They have attacked civilians in Gori and engaged in ethnic cleansing of Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia. Remarkably, the Russian-allied "president" of South Ossetia acknowledged the ethnic cleansing yesterday in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, although he did not acknowledge the killings of Georgian civilians that others have documented. Eduard Kokoity said that his forces "offered them a corridor and gave the peaceful population the chance to leave" and that "we do not intend to allow" their return.

A war crime, yes; but at least he was honest about it.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company