Exhibit A of a Terrible Propaganda Campaign

When I got back home to my apartment in Tbilisi on Saturday night, the babysitter was standing by the window, looking out over the riverside highway, scanning the road for Russian tanks and the skyline for incoming fighter jets. By that time, she had already learned that a television report about a new Russian invasion broadcast earlier that evening wasn’t real but a simulation intended to warn that the Kremlin was capable of launching an offensive to seize Georgia. Even though she knew fully well that it was a  mock report, she couldn’t manage to dispel her frantic visions of Russian soldiers advancing toward the city.

I first heard about the controversial program while it was on air. A friend took a call on her cell phone, then burst out in an outraged yelp, “The Russians are attacking!” Enemy troops had already reached Mtskheta, a town just a few kilometers outside the capital, she babbled nervously. When she called back to find out more, she was quickly reassured that the broadcast was a hoax.

 But others, it seems, were completely taken in by it.

There were reports that some people in villages close to South Ossetia, where the worst clashes took place during the war with Russia in August 2008, started preparing to evacuate women and children. Several people reportedly suffered heart attacks, and I also heard rumors about groups of young men getting weapons together and making ready to mount a guerrilla-style defense of Tbilisi when the Russian soldiers entered the city.

The reaction the next day, after the truth had sunk in, was fury. Many people felt that they had been emotionally exploited by the fake report, which revived painful memories and vividly demonstrated that there are still genuine fears of renewed conflict with Russia here.

Some are also convinced that because the television station that aired the report is run by an ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, it must have been sanctioned by the Georgian leadership. Saakashvili has strongly denied this, even saying his own grandmother was distressed by the broadcast.

But his detractors continue to believe that it was a bungled, poorly thought-out attempt at political propaganda, intended to scare people into rallying around their government, which backfired in spectacular fashion.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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