Saakashvili and the WSJ: Say who’s sorry now
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili   /  Photo:

Saakashvili and the WSJ: Say who’s sorry now

22 Jul, 05:33 PM

The Wall Street Journal European edition carried an article on Monday entitled “Georgia’s president vows changes” signed by Andrew Osborn. For the article, the author interviewed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and “reviewed” parts of a major speech the Georgian leader was to deliver to the country’s parliament the same day. The article touched on a number of topics, but the passage that attracted the most attention read “[Saakashvili] said the hopes of Georgia joining NATO are ‘almost dead.’ ‘It's tragic,’ he said. ‘It means the Russians fought for the right reasons.’”

Russian media cited the statement “the Russians fought for the right reasons” extensively, and generally so that it could be back-translated as “the Russians pursued the just cause.” The Georgian Foreign Ministry later offered a translation that means literally “the Russians fought for correct goals.”

During the wide-ranging debates in parliament that evening, the president’s statement on NATO in WSJ was subjected to harsh criticism from parliamentary opposition leader Giorgi Targamadze. The non-parliamentary opposition, which is much more radicalized than Targamadze’s Christian Democratic Movement, did not react to the statement.

A string of government officials quickly denied the accuracy of the WSJ quotation. Chairman of the parliamentary committee on defense and security Givi Targamadze (not to be confused with Giorgi Targamadze) accused the Russian press of “spreading idiocy” and said the WSJ misquoted the president. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said that “In actuality, the president stated that, if Russia blocks Georgia’s entrance into NATO through its actions, it will be a tragedy.”

Saakashvili later announced that he had received a written apology from the WSJ for the misrepresentation of his words. A spokesman for Dow Jones, which owns the WSJ, denied that claim, saying that the newspaper was not even asked to apologize. The WSJ did, however, issue a “correction and amplification” on Tuesday noting that “The initial version of this article published a shortened quote that didn't convey the full context of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s comments. The quote has been corrected in the article.”

The new version of the passage on the WSJ website reads “Saakashvili said his country's hopes of joining NATO are ‘almost dead. It's tragic. If they manage to kill NATO [Georgia's hopes of joining the alliance], it means the Russians fought for the right reasons.’”

The scandal over the quote its subsequent amendment attracted little attention in the Western press. The corrected and amplified quotation would seem to be in agreement with the elucidation offered earlier in Russian by the Georgian Foreign Ministry: In the war over South Ossetia last August, the Russians achieved a goal that was important to them.

The WSJ article itself seemingly confirms this interpretation. The paragraph following the quotation, which was not changed after the dispute, reads “Before the August war, Mr. Saakashvili spoke confidently of his country’s accession to NATO and the European Union, and its imminent reunification with the two breakaway regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now, the president says achieving all three goals seems unlikely any time soon.”

Thus, Givi Targamadze may be justified in implying that the Russian press was making excessively free use of the quotation and attributing meanings of its own choosing to it.

A possible explanation for the confusion may be the US-educated Georgian president’s usage of English. He has been heard on Western television speaking in English in recent months. He has a heavy accent and the more subtle implications of his words may have escaped him. Regardless of those subtleties, the president may be correct. Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted outgoing NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer Tuesday as saying that Georgia and Ukraine are not ready for NATO membership. That information was widely reported in Russia, but it also received little attention in the Western press.

US Vice President Joseph Biden arrives in Georgia from Ukraine today. His visit is seen as a counterbalance to President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Russia. Biden made a perceived gaffe in Ukraine with a comment about Ukrainian women. It was mercifully free of political content. Biden and Saakashvili have many very delicate issues to face. They would do well to rely heavily on their press secretaries.

Tags: Georgia, NATO, Mikheil Saakashvili, Joseph Biden

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