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The Russia-Georgia Media War Shows No Sign of Abating in the Face of International Justice

Georgian Countryside The January 10 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to strike off more than half the cases filed against Georgia on behalf of South Ossetians and Russian Peacekeepers following the August 2008 War was made for technical rather than political reasons. The decision falls into politicized terrain, however, and all parties to the conflict have made interpretations of its political value.
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While the Georgian government hailed the decision as a victory and as an exposure of a short-termist Russian Propaganda tactic, the de facto Foreign Ministry of South Ossetia disputed the impartiality of the court and called its decision an attack on human rights in general. In reality, the Strasbourg Court's decision is just one piece of fodder in an ongoing propaganda war that has infused every dimension of Tbilisi's relations with both de facto independent South Ossetia and Moscow.

The ECHR cleared from its workload 1,549 cases from a group of over 3,300 applications launched in the wake of the August 2008 war on behalf residents of South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway region. The much-disputed conflict from which these complaints originate broke out during the night of August 7 to 8, 2008. After skirmishes between South Ossetian and Georgian troops during the day, Georgian forces attempted to retake the region's capital, Tskhinvali. Russian forces responded shortly after with ground and air attacks, driving out the Georgian forces and subsequently occupying several strategic locations within uncontested Georgian territory. Following the withdrawal of its troops from Georgia-proper, Russia officially recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and the other breakaway region, Abkhazia. Despite a European Union sponsored investigation into the origins of the war, it remains a hotly contested topic between the parties.

The cases pending before the court related variously to alleged violations of several provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and its protocols, including among others the right to life, the prohibition of torture and degrading treatment, and the prohibition of discrimination. The court received a tide of applications in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, and raised concerns in October 2008 about its capacity to handle the increased workload.

According to its Monday press release, the ECHR had received no response from the applicants' legal representatives to two separate requests it made for additional information in 2010. When questioned by the Ekho Kavkaza radio broadcaster, the lawyers concerned either refused to comment or explained unconvincingly that the problem lay in their poor understanding of the English language and the court's procedures.

De facto South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murat Dzhioev condemned the dropping of the cases both as a failure to respect the European Convention on Human Rights and as typical of European structures' pro-Georgian bias. He interpreted the move as a politicized attempt to, "turn a blind eye to the crimes of the Saakashvili clique against humanity in general and against citizens of South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers in particular."

While the Georgian government's interpretation did not stray as far from the evidence as Dzhioev's bombastic reading, it certainly attempts to exploit the decision to obscure the harm inflicted upon South Ossetians by Georgian forces. Georgian Deputy Justice Minister Tina Burjaliani described the decision as, "yet more proof that complaints filed against Georgia by ethnic Ossetians after the war between Russia and Georgia have no legal grounds and are simply part of Russia's propaganda." Each of these accounts conveniently ignores the ECHR's technical justification for dropping the cases - namely the lawyers' failure to provide additional information - in favor of a politically advantageous interpretation.

The truth lies somewhere between the two versions. Natia Katsitadze, who works on ECHR cases at Tbilisi-based legal NGO, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, agrees that the negligence of responsible lawyers accounts for the dropping of these cases, but also insists that many valid cases concerning abuses remain before the court. Her team has prepared several cases supported by robust evidence related to the Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali. On the other hand, she points out that her organization has prepared around 50 strong cases against Russia, which are also before the court.

Commenting on the broader role of international legal action between Georgia and Russia, Katsitadze notes that the Georgian government collectively accuses Russia at the ECHR of perpetrating gross human rights violations during the conflict. Since the 1990s the Georgian government has also brought cases at the International Court of Justice alleging that Russia pursued a direct policy of discrimination against ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; an allegation that Russia has blocked by disputing the court's jurisdiction. International legal action on both sides is thus fundamentally complicated, thoroughly embroiled in the ongoing political struggle, and appears to serve as much a symbolic as a practical function for both Georgia and Russia.

From the outset, the war over South Ossetia was fought as much in words and images as it was in the tanks that descended upon the small disputed territory, and the explosive public responses by all sides to the ongoing legal stand-off can only be understood as another event within the same narrative struggle. During the conflict the main media outlets of both Georgia and Russia focused reporting one-sidedly on the casualties and sufferings of their own side. Russian media and even government officials have repeatedly referred to the first, unsubstantiated death toll of 2,000 in South Ossetia, despite the fact that this figure was revised officially to 162 in the autumn following the conflict.

Georgian nationwide television broadcasters reportedly experienced strong pressure to adhere to the official version of events during and immediately after the war: namely that Georgia had fallen victim of an unprovoked act of aggression from the Russian side, and were increasingly guided by self-censorship. The government meanwhile systematically blocked Georgians' access to Russian television channels and Web sites. Each side thus sought to impose its own strict narrative of the war from the start.

Margarita Akhviediani of the independent Tbilisi-based organization Go Group Media insists that the present responses to the ECHR decision reflect the same longstanding trend. "The mainstream media war continues. On both sides the tactic is to draw a sharp division of blame between the guilty government and its innocent citizens. In fact, we can only say these mainstream outlets are engaged in propaganda, not news reporting."

The issue of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had monopolized the political discourse in relations between Tbilisi and Moscow before the August 2008 War, and has understandably become a sort of obsession in its wake. Before, during and since the war, rival narratives of events generated through media campaigns serving the interests of each party to the conflict have competed for both domestic and international purchase.

Even the ECHR's technically-grounded decision to strike off these South Ossetian cases met with vociferous and contradictory responses from the different sides. This profoundly fragmented narrative context brings new importance to the anyway controversial institutions of international justice, and singles out the notion of their impartiality for particular scrutiny. The passionately contested status of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - which are formally considered part of Georgia by most of the international community but remain de facto separate from it - coupled with the deep divergence of views concerning Russia's role within these regions, complicate matters still further. In this fraught context international justice may struggle to fulfil its purpose as an independent arbitrator.

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