It is early morning at the new Russian peacekeeping post at Karaleti, a few kilometers north of Gori, and one senior Russian officer is feeling philosophical. "The war is over," he tells a group of foreign journalists with a wry grin. "Now, it's time for the information war to begin."
As in the fighting that raged between Georgian and Russian and Ossetian forces from August 8 to August 12, this is a war with no rules. But, unlike the lopsided military phase of the conflict, the balance of forces in the propaganda fight is more or less even.
Information blockades on both sides constrain the field of battle. Within Georgia, access to Russian television news and web sites remains blocked. Within Russia, information about the war is so tightly controlled that even Russian journalists in Tskhinvali express genuine befuddlement about why ordinary Georgians would fear Russian troops.
Arguably, the Georgian side has gained the upper hand, helped by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's regular, English-speaking appearances on CNN and the BBC. In an August 20 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered a sharp retort that "the course of history must not depend entirely on what the Georgian president is saying."
In recent days, a local counter-offensive, far removed from the spin doctors in Moscow or Tbilisi, has commenced.
With a cease-fire protocol signed, the image of Russian forces as the sole guarantors of public order in areas affected by the conflict is one Moscow is eager to promote.
At the Karaleti peacekeeping post, two days after Georgian police returned to Gori on August 22, the senior Russian officer argues that his troops are merely doing the job that Georgian police should handle themselves. "The Georgians removed themselves from this process," said the officer, who gave his name as Igor. "They just ran. They abandoned their posts at the start of the bombing of Gori."
"We showed the whole world what good peacekeepers the Georgians are, so, in the end, we just told them, Good-bye!'" he continued, waving his hand in mock farewell.
The Russian version of the situation, however, does not always square with the reality experienced by local residents. Within Karaleti, the few Georgian residents who have remained suggest that Russian troops have been either unable or unwilling to promote order. Inside one charred building, a woman standing amidst ankle-deep debris can speak only in broken sentences. "It's scary here," she tells a foreign reporter in Georgian, keeping a careful eye on a passing Russian peacekeeper. "Many people have not returned."
Georgia, for its part, counters that Russian peacekeeping posts – situated to the north of Gori, as well as outside the western towns of Poti, Senaki and Zugdidi – contravene the cease-fire agreement signed on August 16 by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The posts serve as evidence that Russia is occupying Georgia, officials in Tbilisi argue.
To underline that point, a series of so-called "anti-occupation" protests are regular occurrences at Russian peacekeeping posts. With pop music blaring and red-and-white Georgian flags waving, hundreds of Poti residents showed up on August 23 for one such televised demonstration, organized by the Poti city government at the Russian post on the Rioni River.
In this confrontation, the Russians stood no chance. Across trenches, a barrage of Georgian and foreign cameras faced off against a handful of peacekeepers, with one soldier and his handheld video camera representing the Russian side.
On other fronts in the Georgia-Russia media war, the prevailing side is less easy to define.
Pro-government Georgian broadcaster Rustavi-2 routinely describes looting rampages by Russian troops in the areas to the north of Gori; the stories have gone far in keeping many Tbilisi residents nervous about any road travel in the region.
Internally displaced persons from South Ossetia staying at Gori's Kindergarten #2, however, tell a slightly different tale.
"The Russians did nothing bad," said Zenab Pasishvili, a woman from Achabeti, a village not far from Kurta, which served as the administrative center for Georgian-controlled South Ossetia. "They didn't steal."
But neither did they intervene to stop marauding Ossetians who burnt village houses, she elaborated. When Achabeti villagers appealed to Russian soldiers to protect them against the Ossetians, they were met with outright refusal, she claimed. "They said No, we can't help Georgians. Whoever pays us money, we have to do what they want," Pasishvili said.
Zena Chovelidze, an elderly resident of the nearby village of Tsartsemi, endorsed that account. Saying they were acting on the orders of separatist South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, Ossetians took tractors and cleared away the remains of the houses and barns they had burnt, Chovelidze recalled. "There's nothing left," she said.
Again, Russian troops on site did nothing to stop them, according to Chovelidze. But the diminutive, white-haired woman can only thank one soldier from Moscow who transported Chovelidze and four other remaining villagers to Gori on August 22, the day Russian troops withdrew from the city.
"He said, grandma, don't be afraid," Chovelidze said. "We couldn't have made it [here] without them."
Outrage at the destruction wreaked on their respective hamlets and towns appears to be one of the few things that local Georgians and Ossetians still hold in common. But within Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, where access to foreign media is restricted, some residents argue that international news outlets have ignored their side of the story.
Inside one shell-blasted apartment compound on Privokzalnaya Ulitsa, the outside world's sympathy for Georgia is a source of confusion for some South Ossetians. "Why does everyone support them? Why are we the bad ones here?" asked one elderly woman, standing near an outdoor wood-burning stove, set up after the compound lost its electricity following Georgia's August 8 advance on Tskhinvali. As neighbors gather round, she recounts hiding in a basement as Georgian tanks rumbled into town, allegedly firing on the building.
"We've been sick of this for almost 20 years," said another woman, Fatima Katchmazova, pointing to the spot where she says Ossetian fighters killed one Georgian soldier who ran from a burning tank. "Our children have been through this once, and no one paid attention. Now the world does. But why can't they understand? We don't want to live with the Georgians, and that's it."
In the battle to attract international support, scenes of destruction like those in the Ossetian village of Khetagurovo, a hamlet outside of Tskhinvali that was included in one recent Russian-organized press tour, play a key role. While local government head Boris Gabarayev asserts that the village contained no Ossetian or Russian soldiers, the damage done suggested a fierce firefight occurred there.
Village houses feature caved-in roofs and gates heavily pockmarked by shrapnel or bullets. The collapsed wall of one house revealed a bookcase left undisturbed; a bomb crater gapes in the back yard. At a site overlooking the rolling fields from which Georgian forces reportedly made their approach, a charred truck blocks the entrance to a gutted, blackened kindergarten. Shell holes dot the village's dirt streets.
According to Gabarayev, 11 villagers were killed during the Georgians' August 8-10 stay; eight were reportedly taken hostage.
The village was chosen as the site for the August 24 handover of two unidentified Georgian soldiers, while Russian television cameras trailing visiting Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg stood at the ready. No South Ossetian prisoners were presented.
The scenes of wanton destruction are not limited to the Russian or South Ossetian side alone. The inside the Coast Guard headquarters in the Black Sea port city of Poti is a scene of chaos, with ransacked offices, Russian profanities and taunts scrawled on one wipe-board, ceilings destroyed from explosives, and, in the entrance way, a smashed wooden model of a Georgian church. There is nothing salvageable left in the building.
Wading through the debris in one warehouse, Oleg Sichinava, deputy chief of the Coast guard's Resources Department, takes issue with Russian media's contention that Georgia's government has put the entire South Caucasus on a dangerous course. "Dangerous? The whole world has seen who's dangerous here," he said, indicating the shambles to foreign reporters.
For Georgia and Russia alike, the key word is "seen." "We've both got photos and we've both got words to fight this war," commented one Russian journalist in Tskhinvali. "Who's first and who's smartest, that's all that counts."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet.org's Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photographer also based in Tbilisi.