Russians give tour of Georgia, but try not to show too much

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 24, 2008 

KARALETI, Georgia — Russian Col. Igor Konoshenko looked at the building that had been burned by looters — who'd entered the town earlier this month after Russian troops drove through — and quickly tried to shift the reporters' attention elsewhere.

"The other buildings are fine, look at them," he said, waving his hand assertively.

That sort of redirection was typical of a seven-and-a-half-hour tour that the Russians conducted Sunday for reporters in the occupied countryside of Georgia.

By the end of the day, the Russians had made it obvious they weren't interested in revealing what transpired after their forces pushed the Georgian military out of the breakaway province of South Ossetia and marched on to the center of the country.

Russia has sought to closely manage press movement across South Ossetia and outlying villages. That's been especially true for reporters operating out of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Russian soldiers have routinely turned back journalists seeking to enter the areas.

Even on Sunday, when reporters were invited to tag along on a tour by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, Russian officials tried hard to limit access, demanding that reporters stay with the group.

"The thing is that foreign correspondents we take from Tbilisi do not move around," said Alexander Machevsky, an escort who said he was working for the press service of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He added: "No foreign correspondents have been shot here and we would like to keep it that way."

In Karaleti, Russian soldiers watched warily as locals came up to reporters and explained how the building was set aflame. "The Ossetians did this," said Manana Chidliashvili, whose son used to live in one of the burned-out apartments. "I'm afraid of the Russian soldiers, if they didn't let the Ossetians in to destroy everything, who did?"

A few minutes later, Konoshenko yelled that it was time to get back in the Russian troop transport truck: "Move! Move! Move! Faster!" His companion, a lieutenant colonel who gave his name only as Andrei, referred to the vehicle in broken English as the "big green beautiful military car."

The truck whipped by the next village down the road, Tkviavi, where residents had told a McClatchy reporter on Saturday that Ossetian militias gunned down people in the streets and ransacked many homes. Viewed through the approximately three-inch tall windows of the transport vehicle, the charred houses were just a blur.

To the north, in Tskhinvali, the truck stopped in an area particularly hard hit by the Georgian push into the city, and the Russian response. Houses were reduced to skeletal frames or rubble. It was the very image of what Russia has contended happened across Tskhinvali — that Georgians had destroyed the entire city in a genocidal rampage against Ossetians, forcing the Russians to enter.

"There is no city anymore," Konoshenko said in a solemn tone.

But in getting to that block - close to the edge of the city where fighting between the Georgians and Russians was intense -- the truck passed apartment buildings and rows of houses that, while damaged in places by heavy fighting, were still intact.

Konoshenko had no time to discuss the inconsistency. After just a few minutes, he yelled that it was time to move on.

At an apartment building, the EC's Hammarberg was introduced to a woman who yelled that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "is a facist." Elena Jabieva said that Georgian soldiers threw grenades toward the stairwell of the basement where she was hiding.

But there was no sign of grenade explosions — they would have left leave unmistakable damage in the small area she indicated — and when pressed, she acknowledged that grenades hadn't been thrown.

Machevsky, the Russian press man, led Hammarberg to a picnic table where a group of South Ossetians were waiting. They said they knew who Hammarberg was, and needed to tell him some things.

"Had it not been for the great people of Russia, we Ossetians would have all been dead," said one man.

Asked how much of South Ossetia he had seen so far, Hammarberg said "only a part of it, of course ... I'm building step by step."

Machevsky, who spoke in a loud voice and often cradled a cell phone by his ear, bristled a bit when asked if reporters would be able to explore more of the region.

"I'm preparing for you a small surprise," he said. "Do you believe me? Then go back to the truck."

The surprise: in a small town west of Tskhinvali, two Georgian prisoners were handed over to be driven back to Tbilisi.

In the van that came to get them, Machevsky was in the passenger seat, grinning. A little later, Machevsky got pressed again to offer more access.

"I'm leaving, I'm leaving, I'm not already here," he said, sliding into a waiting car.

The lieutenant colonel walked up and said, "Let's go, please, to big green beautiful military car."

More from McClatchy:

Amid Georgians' tales of violence, death toll is unclear

Russia withdraws from some positions in Georgia

U.S. Olympic team picks Georgian to lead them in closing ceremony

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service