Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

The Conflict In Georgia: Gergiev Stirs South Ossetia With Concert

The Wall Street Journal, 22nd August 2008 15:05

By Andrew Osborn

TSKHINVALI, Georgia -- Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, widely known to U.S. classical-music audiences for his performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, issued a ringing endorsement of Moscow's actions in Georgia at a televised concert on the steps of the shell-scarred South Ossetian parliament building.

Speaking partly in English, Mr. Gergiev declared that "great Russia" saved South Ossetia from Georgian aggression, and he compared Georgia's actions to those of the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11.

"When the U.S. lost three and a half thousand people on Sept. 11th, Russia became the first country to express its support," said Mr. Gergiev, referring to the attacks that killed about 3,000 people. "For South Ossetia to lose 1,500 or 2,000 people today is a terrible tragedy but no one knows about it."

Mr. Gergiev led a nationalism-charged performance before an audience that included Russian soldiers atop armored personnel carriers. The program included the "Leningrad" symphony of Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, which commemorates Russian resistance to Nazi Germany's invasion in World War II.

Some of the hundreds of civilians attending were overcome with emotion and wept. At the end of the concert, a woman who said she was a teacher approached a Wall Street Journal reporter. "So many of my pupils have died. They killed so many beautiful girls," she said.

Mr. Gergiev was born in Moscowbut grew up in North Ossetia, a part of Russia adjacent to the disputed territory of South Ossetia. He has long been friendly with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and has praised Mr. Putin for bringing stability to Russia. His remarks closely followed Moscow's official line accusing Georgia of wreaking heavy damage to Tskhinvali.

Georgia says it was responding to Russian aggression in the conflict, which broke out Aug. 7. Independent observers haven't confirmed the death toll among South Ossetians or the extent of damage caused by Georgian forces.

Russia continues to complain that its role in the region has been unfairly portrayed, while the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been giving regular television interviews to American networks since tensions flared.

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "I can't remember an issue over which the Russians have been so engaged in trying to shape public discourse."

The White House disputed Mr. Gergiev's interpretation, but added that the musician was free to say what he wishes. Spokesman Tony Fratto said: "The truth with respect to Georgia is pretty clear for all to see."

Mr. Gergiev's appointment as principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera ended last year, but he will continue to conduct at the Met in the future, said a spokesman, who declined to comment further.

The orchestra was from Mr. Gergiev's Mariinsky Theater, which is based in Mr. Putin's home town of St. Petersburg and receives state backing.

Earlier in the day, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity led a rally here that called on Russia to recognize South Ossetia's independence from Georgia.

He said in an interview that South Ossetia seeks unification with Russia, saying when would be up to Russia. He denied that ethnic Georgians were being forced out of South Ossetia, and waved away reports of journalists who saw signs of looting and plumes of smoke rising from Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali. He said the Georgian residents left voluntarily after fighting started, taking all their belongings with them.

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Alan Cullison, Louise Radnofsky and Robert J. Hughes contributed to this article.