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I’ve been resisting writing about Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia for the past 10 days, even though it’s a fascinating story. Something about hanging out on the beach in August changes the urgency of it all, and also, I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t blog until I finished my USIP paper. Two weeks later, I’m still not done with the paper, and though coverage of the conflict is pretty well in hand by others, a few things are bothering me.

1) Reported casualty totals. Two days after the conflict began, reports started coming in about the number of people killed during the initial Georgian attack. First 1600, and now, the number often seen is 2000. This is a pretty high number of fatalities for two-three days of fighting, and it’s been used by Russia as part of the justification of the invasion. News organizations all over the world have repeated that number, and it’s gone out into the blogosphere as well. That’s true for blogs and organizations that pride themselves on accuracy as well as those dedicated to rumor, speculation, vitriol, and what have you. It’s quickly become part of the background story. Here, for instance, is a quote from Digital Natives, writing on cyberattacks:

Thousands have died in this war. And while DDoS attacks are more a function of propaganda than lethal violence (and Russia’s straightforward bombing of cell phone towers probably more effective, tactically), it’s worth considering the degree to which online actions and innovations by individuals and entrepreneurs can be adopted by states in support of bad actions.

See Global Voices’ special coverage of the crises for a window into Georgian and Russian blogs. The mainstream media stuck with those casualty figures for nearly a week after the conflict first flared. The first story I saw questioning the Russian tally came today, in the Washington Post, by Peter Finn. Others may be out there as well, but only in the past two-three days. Finn says:

Russian officials say 2,000 people died in Tskhinvali. That figure has been described as inflated by human rights groups. But there unquestionably was a large toll of civilian deaths and injuries, which has outraged Russia and shocked Georgia’s Western allies.

The human rights group in question is most likely Human Rights Watch. HRW published a story August 14 titled “Russia/Georgia: Investigate Civilian Deaths.” HRW says:

A doctor at Tskhinvali Regional Hospital who was on duty from the afternoon of August 7 told Human Rights Watch that between August 6 to12 the hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilians. She said her hospital was the only clinic treating the wounded in Tskhinvali. The doctor said there were more military personnel than civilians among the wounded and added that all of the wounded were later transferred to the Russian Ministry of Emergencies mobile hospitals in South and North Ossetia. As of August 13, there were no wounded left in the Tskhinvali hospital.

The doctor also said that 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital since the fighting began, of both military and civilians. The figure reflects only those killed in the city of Tskhinvali. But the doctor was adamant that the majority of people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital before being buried, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity in the city.

So the initial tally from independent observers of confirmed deaths is considerably lower than 2000. To note this is not simply to debunk Russian propaganda – there’s been plenty of spin coming from all sides. It’s also not to justify Georgian actions – bombing civilian populations is deplorable and illegal regardless of whether you believe they’re in the right in this particular conflict.

Rather, it’s to note the lack of care with which U.S. news organizations have taken with casualty figures – reporting first numbers without tackling the verification question. Maybe I’m not the only one affected by August sloth. But news organizations should know how difficult it can be to get accurate casualty figures, and not report unsubstantiated stats. HRW and others are just beginning the work of visiting morgues, hospitals, and cemeteries, and interviewing survivors for a more accurate count.

2) Lack of comparison with Chechnya. U.S. news coverage has discussed Kosovo, and even WWI and WWII as apt comparisons for what’s going on in the Caucasus. See this WaPo piece by Michael Dobbs for a summation. But the most apt point of reference is Chechnya, for two reasons:

-The Ossetian conflict was born of the same separatist impulse in the Caucasus as Chechnya, and involves the same state and non-state actors. The Russian-Georgian relationship was inflamed in the 1990s by Georgia’s refusal to allow the Russian military to enter Chechnya via the Georgian border; this refusal was in no small part due to Russia’s support for Ossetian and Abkazian separatists.

-The Chechnya comparison exposes the argument over competing principles of inviolate national sovereignty and the right of self-determination as a red herring. Russia is for territorial integrity for Russia, but not for Georgia; for self-determination for Ossetia, but not for Chechnya. The implications are clear. Russian policy in the Caucasus is about power, not principle. Buying into comparative narratives that focus on issues of principle miss the point. Which is not to say that Georgian or Ossetian policies are necessarily more principled; and realpolitik has long been a staple of U.S. foreign policy as well.

For a sober and informed view of the conflict, a good place to start is Tom de Waal’s analysis in IWPR.

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