Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NYT Gets It From Horse's Mouth in Soviet Battleground

NEW YORK, New York -- The New York Times reported last weekend that Georgia's separatist enclave of South Ossetia was struggling to rebuild after the Russo-Georgian war that ostensibly centered around it this summer.

To listen to Times reporter Ellen Barry tell it, such are the wacky and crazy growing pains of an incipient nation.

Barry speaks of the "embarrassment" of residents of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, who are without basic plumbing -- for a newly sovereign state, running water should be a prerequisite, Barry and her interviewees seem to conclude. The report suggests that it's unclear what, exactly, has led to the shortages of water, construction supplies, and other basics, but, as Barry notes, "Whatever the reasons, progress has been slow."

Just like any other fledgling nation-state

Citing the head of a Russian organization, she writes: “They are asking, ‘What has actually changed as a result of our independence?’ There was, in fact, a real euphoria after the war, a strong one. But now it’s passing.”

Reading Barry's report, one would hardly realize that South Ossetia is a region in the nation of Georgia, and that only two countries in the world have recognized its claims to independence -- its primary enabler, Russia, and the bizarre leftist dictatorship of Nicaragua. Nor would one be cognizant that the country was the centerpiece of a war not of independence but mutual provocation by a then petrodollar-fattened Russia and a nascent Georgian state that Russia has long had designs of subduing and which Russia alleged was trying to bring about a genocide before that argument fell down like a prom dress.

Indeed, as Barry tells us: "When Georgia began an assault on the separatist capital on Aug. 7, Russia sent columns of armor to protect its allies."

Never mind the fact that, while it is extremely unclear under what circumstances the war between two consistently duplicitous and murky countries began, the current evidence seems to suggest Russian troops entered South Ossetia simultaneously with the Georgians. Never mind in addition that South Ossetia is less an "ally" of Russia than a part of a Georgian state in whose affairs Russia has repeatedly meddled since the Soviet breakup.

In this case, Barry seems to be the latest in a long line of English-language reporters who can from time to time be deaf, dumb and blind in Russia. At almost all big US and UK papers, foreign reporting is often sloppy. And (post) Soviet reporting can be a disaster.

This is nothing new -- Walter Duranty himself was the proudest purveyor of this particular trend -- but nor is it a good thing. While it's never pleasant or nice to dig into correspondents, who are often trying like anyone else to do their best at a difficult job, personality is uniquely important for foreign newspaper correspondents. Given that a Moscow reporter's editors are a world away and almost totally ignorant about what's going on in the (former) Soviet Union, the foreign corespondent's own impressions and ability to grasp his surroundings take on unique import in conveying to millions of Americans what is happening in a place utterly alien to them.

Judging by The Google, Barry's own background seems to be as a reporter in Boston and the US South before moving in 2007 to the New York Times. After a time reporting on the New York metro area, she vanished for 9 months (presumably for Russian language instruction) before re-appearing in Moscow in August 2008.

I have often been fairly impressed with her work, in part because of the inherent systemic difficulties of finding qualified foreign correspondents. First of all, it's probably very difficult for the Times' editors to determine who should be reporting for them in Russia or any foreign country. Do you hire natives who might have little or no training in high-quality journalism, or even share the Times' general weltanschauung and interests? Expats who have been in a place for a while -- but may be burnt-out lifers? Or do you send your own reporters?

The Times seems to combine the latter two approaches, which makes sense. But sending to Moscow a reporter who knows Brooklyn well doesn't guarantee that any less-than-totally-straightforward political stories (e.g., articles that aren't cut-and-dry stories on missile reduction or NATO expansion) will be handled well. Other Moscow reporters have been sent from New York (after winning a Pulitzer, in some cases). But their stories have sometimes been a mix of murmurings of the most basic facts of Moscow life ("Wow! They turn hot water off here in the summer!") and out-of-date features.

Barry seemed immediately capable, and I don't doubt that she is a good reporter, but this particular story is really pretty galling. When Western reporters go to Russia's "hot spots" -- places like Chechnya, Dagestan, distant oilfields on Sakhalin, or the breakaway republics Russia is trying to wrest from its neighbors -- their trips are often planned to a T by Russian authorities, sometimes with little time to wander off or interview people freely. For her part, Barry's sojourn to South Ossetia seems to have been part of a trip organized by the South Ossetian separatist government or its Russian sponsors: She mentions that she, as part of a "group of foreign journalists," met with the rebel leader, Eduard Kokoity, a sign that a Russian or Ossetian ministry may have been calling the shots on the trip.

Interviews with locals follow a typical tack for these sorts of trips: Residents of Tskhinvali mentioned in the piece are generally patriotic (though I doubt that many of the <70,000 people remaining in South Ossetia aren't patriotic at this point, given that ethnic Georgians and those opposed to the breakaway regime have been chased out). And when asked about the clusterfuck that is South Ossetia, they blame unnamed "underlings" of the rebel leader, rather than point any fingers at the top dog himself.

Sounding like any Chinese peasant standing around with a few teeth knocked out after a round of rioting, one South Ossetian tells Barry: "She 'didn’t get a thing' [in terms of monetary support], though it had not affected her opinion of Mr. Kokoity. 'We love him, we respect him,' she said. 'But he has many bad subordinates.'"

Kokoity is the head of a breakaway state alleged (in the Times' pages) to be involved in counterfeiting; arms, human and drugs trafficking; and that has helped smuggle nuclear material, but Barry's piece gives no indication of this. Instead, we're assured by Kokoity that "dishonest subcontractors" are to blame for any problems. Later, in case anyone didn't get the point, Kokoity is again quoted as fingering the nefarious "unscrupulous subcontractors" as being to blame for the fact that South Ossetia isn't exactly Candyland.

The fact that it's a war-ravaged breakaway state run, as Russian journalist Yulia Latynina has reported, by embezzlers and propped up and used as a political token in Russia's strategery games is apparently not central to these problems.

Indeed, the Russo-Georgian war is depicted not as a struggle between a rash, corrupt Georgian state and an ill-tempered, power-hungry Russian giant trying to regain control of its strategically located Caucasus neighbors and former subjects, but as a drive for independence among a people yearning to breathe free: "There are reminders of the euphoria that swept this valley last summer, when Russia acknowledged South Ossetia’s 18-year separatist struggle by recognizing it as a sovereign nation. Graffiti proclaims 'Ossetia thanks its defenders' and 'Great Russia,' and citizens say they are extraordinarily grateful to be free of Georgian rule."

Probably not so grateful

Yet, to anyone outside the Kremlin (or to those in the Kremlin and possessing common sense), South Ossetia remains firmly within Georgia's territory.

The thousands of ethnic Georgians whose ancestral villages are interspersed across South Ossetia, and who were chased from their homes, are not mentioned here. Neither are the Georgians living outside South Ossetia who were displaced when Russian tanks threatened to take Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, after invading South Ossetia.

The NYT is one hell of an organization. There is no parallel in US media. Unfortunately, as well-meaning as its Russian correspondents probably are, they and the Moscow correspondents for all English-language (especially UK) media sometimes don't speak strong Russian or command a great amount of knowledge about the region -- relying instead on a small army of translators, "fixers" who arrange interviews, researchers and drivers. In this case, the briar patch that is South Ossetia was smoothed over to the point that it was treated as a sovereign nation. In fact, a deeply flawed South Ossetia is still part of a deeply flawed Georgia at bitter odds with a deeply flawed Russia. But the result of this reporting-by-committee is unfortunately a too-often ill-informed American public, and, in this case, traces of unjustified deference to an opaque separatist state.

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