Kremlin Makes Its Case With Tskhinvali Tour

APA South Ossetian boy playing on Monday with an abandoned Mukha grenade launcher in front of a building damaged during a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali.
TSKHINVALI -- Under the standards of information warfare, it was an easy job by all accounts.

The Kremlin only had to charter a plane, take about 60 foreign and Russian reporters to Beslan, bus them through the Roksky Tunnel to South Ossetia, and stand back.

The journalists did the rest. They were free to speak to whomever they wanted and ask any questions.

The comments that they heard on all sides -- from South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity, local officials and ordinary residents -- matched the Kremlin's official line perfectly. Everyone said they had waited for years for Russia to recognize the breakaway Georgian republic of 70,000 people as independent and hoped for a future together.

"We've been waiting for this for 18 years," said Tsiala Gergaulova, a Tskhinvali resident whose 24-year-old son was nearly struck by a Georgian shell in the Russian-Georgian war last month. "I would like for us to be part of Russia. I believe everybody wants this."

Boris Bagayev, an 85-year-old artist and official with the local administration, said he was more than happy that Moscow had recognized his republic last week. "It gives meaning to my life," he said.

Two weeks after the short but intense war, life in the South Ossetian capital appears to be coming back together. On Monday, damaged government buildings, ruined neighborhoods and a statue with a missing head in a central square stood as grim reminders of the fighting. But the streets were being patched up, reconstruction was being planned, and most children attended their first day of the school year -- just like their peers in Russia.

For the situation to improve further, Kokoity said, the world should recognize South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent.

"The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will stabilize the situation in the Caucasus," the South Ossetian leader told reporters, standing in front of green netting covering the remains of the local parliament building. Russia so far has been the only country to recognize the breakaway republics, although Belarus and Venezuela have expressed support. Western powers have denounced the decision.

Kokoity said the immediate task for his government was to strengthen South Ossetia's independence and then to officially become part of Russia. He urged foreign reporters to ignore criticism from their governments and "listen to the voice of people and common sense."

A Kremlin official supervising the journalists on the trip, Vladislav Petrushin, said the main purpose of the visit was to give the foreign reporters access to the administration led by Kokoity. "We've provided an opportunity to talk. It's not like we've given him a cheat sheet. He said the truth," Petrushin said.

The trip also indicates how far the Kremlin has evolved in communicating with the outside world. When the fighting broke out Aug. 8, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and other senior officials made their case in interviews with major Western media outlets. Top Russian officials, meanwhile, were shown on state television holding meetings. As international sentiment grew in Tbilisi's favor, the Kremlin mounted its own campaign of informational warfare. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have offered a series of interviews in recent days.

"They've understood they can't neglect communications," said Anthony Orliange, a television reporter with Capa, a production company, on the Kremlin trip to South Ossetia.

"The whole point of me being here is that the Kremlin wants to communicate," said Orliange, who came with a colleague from Paris after receiving their Russian visas in record time. "I didn't have a visa three days ago," he said.

During the war, access to the conflict zone was tightly controlled for foreign reporters. While Monday's visit was vastly different from seeing the war itself, it was still helpful, Orliange said. "I am getting the vibe of this place," he said. "It will change my perspective."

But not everyone was pleased about being included in the Kremlin trip, even peripherally.

"We are just pawns," said Alexandra Smirnova, who came to the Beslan cemetery Monday to mourn two granddaughters killed during the terrorist attack on a school on Sept. 1, 2004, that killed more than 300 people.

"Politicians are fighting wars and people suffer," she said.