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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Televised Images of Serbs Resonate With Russians

Media: Coverage of civilians in Belgrade extolling Slavic selfhood fuels anti-NATO feelings.

April 05, 1999|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — From the heart of a war zone come jarring pictures of people dancing, swaying, cheering, smiling--civilians whose country is being bombed intensively by the most powerful nations on Earth--triggering the question: What can these people have to celebrate?

Like a football crowd, they are chanting, "Russ-i-a! Russ-i-a!" They are Yugoslav Serbs, and they are cheering a Russian TV crew in their capital, Belgrade. But the images sent home to Moscow of rock concerts in the city, blasting out the traditional Russian folk song "Kalinka," and of joyful civilians in a basement are as much about the people behind the unblinking camera eye as they are about those in its field of vision.

Since it cannot be victory they are honoring, why are they so jubilant? They are celebrating who they are, extolling an ideal of Slavic selfhood. And bouncing, distorted, through the prism of Russian TV coverage, that ideal strikes a profound chord among Russian viewers that helps explain the startling depth of anti-NATO and anti-U.S. feelings here, sentiments that cross all political and generational boundaries.

Part of the reason for the strength of feeling is the us-versus-them nature of most Russian media coverage, which leaves viewers no doubt about who are the good guys and who are the thugs in this war. The message would not strike its target, however, if the imagery did not resonate so deeply in the Russian consciousness.

The view of civilians joyful in the face of bombs feeds into Russia's own World War II mythology and its own sense of Slavic selfhood. It resonates with the idea of stoic, cheerful Soviet people who died by the millions resisting the Nazis--but were always ready with a patriotic song.

Russians relate to the Slavic underdog, vastly outgunned by a superior West, in a way that parallels their own sense of military and economic loss compared with the West. They see an injustice that somehow applies to themselves as well. How much more glorious to go down in flames, like Yugoslavia, than to have to come cap in hand to the West for International Monetary Fund loans, as Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov did March 29.

Breathless coverage from state-owned RTR's program "Vesti" that was televised Thursday focused on NATO bombing of a civilian target in Yugoslavia--a bridge near the town of Novi Sad. But it was not a strategic bridge, "because a few kilometers from it a new high-speed bridge has been built, and it, thank God, is still intact," RIA-Novosti correspondent Nikolai Paskhin reported for the program. Since that report, the second bridge has been destroyed.

Meanwhile, Alexei Pobortsev of the independently owned station NTV, whose Serbian driver was shot dead as the NTV crew filmed in Kosovo, reported that the NATO strikes had achieved little.

"NATO is bombing empty barracks," Pobortsev said, adding that the alliance's missiles and bombs targeted an airfield, a radar station and a third military site--all grouped together near Kosovo's capital, Pristina--for three nights running, yet missed completely. But, he said, they did flatten a hair salon and the house of an elderly Serbian woman, who survived.

It took the Russian media a long time to find the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo who have been filling Western TV screens. When Russian TV crews did find refugees, they at first sent home pictures of Serbs fleeing. And several days later, when Russian television did cover the ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo, there were no witness accounts to explain what and whom they were fleeing from. The party line, apart from a passing reference by NTV to "ethnic cleansing," was that they were running from NATO's bombs.

It wasn't until Sunday, when NTV showed video footage of slain ethnic Albanians aired earlier by the BBC, that the Russian station turned to the "ethnic cleansing" issue in more detail.

A strong thread running through the Russian coverage is the theme of Slavic Orthodox brotherhood. Footage of a smashed Serbian war museum scanned broken pictures of Serbian allied soldiers in World War II. Another report showed some Russian priests bearing a holy icon of the mother of God to protect Yugoslavia and making a pilgrimage to every holy site in that country--regardless of the bombs.

"Mythology here is working miracles. Simple answers abound," said Leonid A. Sedov, an analyst at the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, which reported Wednesday that 90% of Russians in a recent survey were opposed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization strikes.

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