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Georgian displays his media savvy

It's been hard to miss Saakashvili on U.S. news shows, railing about Russia's invasion of his country.

August 20, 2008|Matea Gold, Tracy Wilkinson and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — He is the leader of a small country that was, until recently, not on the radar of most Americans. But it's been hard to turn on a news channel this month without encountering the angry, brooding glare of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, railing against the Russian troops pouring across his country's borders, doing his best to turn a military disaster into a media victory.

There he is on CNN -- again. On the CBS morning program "The Early Show" and on the evening news talking to Katie Couric. Then over to Neil Cavuto of Fox News.

Struggling to survive Russia's declared intention to chase him from power, Saakashvili has reached for the Western media like a life jacket. Even as Russian troops were driving his soldiers into retreat, Saakashvili was sending an opinion column to the Wall Street Journal, insisting that "Moscow sought war."

Everywhere, his media message was the same.

"Georgia is a very modern, normal country with very interesting people like Americans that are being battered and butchered," he told CBS' Howard Smith. "This is a cold-blooded murder of a small, free independent country by a ruthless big neighbor."

The U.S.-educated Saakashvili's media savvy, along with his English-language skills and apparently insatiable appetite for interviews, have helped ensure that his version of this month's events has become the dominant narrative in Western media coverage.

"At least in the American media Georgia has won the message war, and he's influenced that for sure," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. While the Russian press depicted the fighting as the result of Georgian aggression, "what we saw portrayed were the Russians attacking Georgia," Rosenstiel said.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, complained to CNN's Larry King last week that the coverage has been lopsided.

"Western television didn't show what happened in Tskhinvali," he said, referring to the Georgian strike on that city. "Only now, they're beginning to show some pictures of the destruction."

But Western media did not show the aftermath of fighting in Tskhinvali because the Russian authorities refused to let them into the city. Russia's media strategy during this confrontation has been aimed at its domestic audience, not the West, observers say. Its military controlled access to the war zone, allowing foreign media to enter only under escort, trying to limit what they could see.

By comparison, Saakashvili's target audience was public opinion in the countries that were ostensibly his allies: the U.S., other parts of the former Soviet empire and Western European countries that he sharply criticized as feckless in their defense of Georgia's democracy.

That message of a small democracy under threat was the heart of a massive rally in the central square of Tbilisi on Aug. 12. The images of about 150,000 Georgians packed into the square, gigantic flags undulating in the summer air backed by a crescendo of patriotic music, conjured memories of the peaceful democratic revolutions that helped free neighbors like Ukraine and Poland from the Soviet grip.

For extra effect, Saakashvili invited the leaders of those two countries, as well as of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to join him onstage in Tbilisi and frame him in the TV shots.

It seemed to work. Polish President Lech Kaczynski returned to Warsaw to gush over how the demonstration reminded him of the glory days of Solidarity, the labor movement credited with bringing down Poland's communist leaders.

"I thought about my youth, about my speeches in the '80s, the Solidarity rallies," Kaczynski told the conservative Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. "I felt like that again, the best times of my life."

Press coverage in Poland, and in much of Europe, has been generally sympathetic to Georgia. Over the weekend, several newspapers in Warsaw, whether by coincidence or design, followed their reports on Georgia with features on the 40th anniversary of the Soviet repression of a reform movement in what was then Czechoslovakia, and on Hitler's ferocious occupation of Poland.

"It was very important for Saakashvili and for Georgia that those pictures went around the world," said Aleksander Szczyglo, a leading member of Kaczynski's right-wing Law and Justice Party and former defense minister.

By comparison, Moscow has kept a tight clamp on media coverage of the conflict, an easy feat thanks to the crackdown on independent media that took place under the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and former president.

Russia's bombardment of Georgia, and the flow of troops and tanks over the border, has been cast as a victorious intervention that saved South Ossetians from slaughter at the hands of Georgian soldiers. The continuing presence of Russian soldiers on Georgian turf is described as a necessary security measure.

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