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Sunday, 24 October, 1999, 10:54 GMT
Spinning the war Russian style
Bombed Market The market bombing has further harmed Russia's image

By Angus Roxburgh

Russia has a problem with Chechnya.

"The problem is," as a Russian nationalist member of parliament said to me last week, that "unfortunately in my country the mass media are not controlled by the army".

Battle for the Caucasus
Well, in fact the army gets a pretty good deal out of the mass media here without actually controlling it.

Coverage of the latest conflict in Chechnya has tended to portray the Russian military as kindly souls who hand out humanitarian aid and sweets to children in towns they liberate, and the Chechen rebels as monstrous terrorists who not only blow up apartment blocks in Moscow and other places, but torture and mutilate their kidnap victims.

A Russian television film about this was even deemed appropriate to be shown to Western journalists and officials who were in Helsinki on Friday for the meeting between the Russian prime minister and European Union leaders.

The film showed a captive's head being chopped off, another's throat being slit, and a third's finger being blown off by a revolver at close range. Other than things like that, Russian television viewers don¿t get to see much of what kind of people Chechens are.

Western reporters shown 'truth'

Russia says ordinary Chechens will get behind its campaign
The foreign media are harder to control though. We spoil things by showing civilians who have been killed by Russian shells. So this week, the army decided to take us in hand and help us understand the real situation.

A small group of us was flown down from Moscow to the area of Chechnya now controlled by Russian forces - that¿s roughly the top third of the republic, north of the Terek river.

But first we were taken to the neighbouring republic of Dagestan to be shown a town which had been attacked by Chechen terrorists in August. The incursions outraged the Dagestanis, who had hitherto been fairly sympathetic to the Chechen cause.

The Russians say the attacks - by Muslim fundamentalist fighters - justify their operations aimed at wiping them out.

The president of Dagestan instructed us on how to report what we saw.

"Tell only the truth," he said, reminding us that the truth was that "Russia is fighting bandits, and in Dagestan you will observe a huge patriotic rising against the terrorists".

Later, our hosts tried to ply us with vodka and Dagestani cognac, enjoining us to go a way with happy memories of their hospitality.

Strange idea

Russian paratrooper are shown giving sweets to Chechen children
The prize for bizarre news management must go to whoever dreamt up the idea of taking us to the border between Dagestan and Chechnya - where it was suggested we might like to walk down the road towards the town of Gudermes, which, our army hosts assured us, was controlled by a "friendly" Chechen warlord who had given an assurance that we would be safe.

We all looked at each other and stared down the long, empty road leading towards the lion's lair. "So, will the army accompany us?" we asked.

"No, no, but the Chechens say you'll be safe."

A few mad souls among the journalists, mainly from France, seemed tempted to take up the offer.

I for one couldn't fathom why the Russian army, which was supposed to be guaranteeing our security, was even making such a strange suggestion.

Suddenly there was a bustle of activity and word came back that there had been a sighting of some ruthless kidnappers - the very band, indeed, that had held and then executed three Britons and a New Zealander last year.

"Sadly," the official spokesman explained, "the trip's off".

But there you go - the unspoken conclusion was - that's what we're fighting against.

Russian television promptly reported what had happened, saying foreign journalists had realised how dangerous Chechnya really was.

Chechens speak out

Western journalists report on civilian casualties
The next day, though, things unravelled a little. We went to the town of Shelkovskaya, where - unsurprisingly by now - a large crowd of people was waiting in the main square for us.

General Gennady Troshev, commander of the eastern front, gathered the cameras round and made a little speech to the townspeople, prompting them to exclaim how peacefully the Russians had entered the town, without a shot being fired.

He promised more aid would be brought in, and that money would soon be found for doctors and teachers to be paid, for the first time in three years.

Part of the Russian strategy is to woo the regions it occupies in this way. A government-in-waiting is being set up, ready to take over as the area controlled by Moscow enlarges.

But the good citizens of Shelkovskaya clearly hadn't been shown the script. They told me they had voted overwhelmingly for the pro-independence government of Aslan Maskhadov - a government that Moscow now says it doesn't recognise as legitimate.

It wasn't long before many people were voicing scepticism about Russia's intentions - and outrage at its ferocious air attacks on neighbouring village, even if Shelkovskaya itself had largely been spared.

"There are several villages near here," several men told me, "where 70% of the houses have been destroyed. What's the point of that? The fighters had left long ago."

Twice bitten?

More reinforcements are being sent to support the Russian campaign
And that's the trouble with the Russian campaign. Just as in 1994 to 1996, the rebels are no fools.

Yes, they use villages as bases from which to attack Russian positions. But they are highly mobile and make sure they get out as soon as it looks like an attack is imminent.

During the last war they survived for two years in this way and were finally able to mount a counterattack on Grozny which pushed the Russians out.

The signs are Moscow is believing its own propaganda. Officials talk about gradually expanding the pro-Russian area. They say ordinary peace-loving citizens will throw the terrorists out and Chechnya will slide back into Moscow's orbit.

Somehow, I don't think it is going to be like that. Thursday's slaughter of civilians at Grozny's market and maternity hospital is probably just a taste of worse to come.

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See also:
22 Oct 99 |  Monitoring
Russian press questions market attack
29 Oct 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Putin's war
24 Oct 99 |  Europe
The first bloody battle for Grozny
23 Oct 99 |  Europe
Georgia fears all-Caucasus war
29 Oct 99 |  Europe
Q&A: Russia closes in

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