TBILISI (Reuters) - Western envoys on Monday condemned a fake news report in Georgia that Russian tanks had entered the capital, wading into a row that has exposed deep divisions over opposition attempts to mend ties with Moscow.
Saturday’s 20-minute primetime report on pro-government Imedi TV caused panic 18 months after the ex-Soviet neighbors fought a five-day war.
Shock has given way to accusation over the politics behind the broadcast, which Imedi said was a warning over contacts between opposition leaders and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
EU special envoy to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby said the stunt did not help stability in Georgia and the region.
“It seems to have created further internal political divisions. It may even have been intended to do so,” he told Reuters.
Georgia holds local elections in May watched as a barometer of support for authorities under President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The opposition said the government was behind the report on Imedi, which is run by a close ally of Saakashvili.
The president’s spokeswoman said on Monday the accusation was “absurd”. But state manipulation of media remains a serious concern for Georgia’s Western backers.
Meetings between Putin and Saakashvili defectors Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Nogaideli have fueled debate over Russia’s intentions and whether Georgia should seek to mend relations with its northern neighbor.
Ordinary Georgians, many of whom have relatives in Russia, are suffering from severed diplomatic relations, closed air links and an effective Russian trade embargo.
Georgia’s government says Russia cannot be trusted. The Kremlin says it wants nothing to do with Saakashvili, whose assault on rebel South Ossetia in August 2008 after clashes with separatists drew a crushing Russian counterstrike.
The fake broadcast, which ran without a banner to make clear it was not real, said Russian tanks were advancing on Tbilisi after Burjanadze and Nogaideli called on Moscow to intervene in political unrest following the mayoral vote.
Mobile phone networks crashed and there was a spike in calls to the emergency services.
Saakashvili criticized how the report was presented but said it was not unrealistic.
But U.S. ambassador to Georgia John Bass slammed the stunt.
The situation between Georgia and Russia is “serious enough without this sort of sensational quasi-news activity and I look forward to the examination of what happened by the appropriate organizations,” he said.
Russia envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said Saakashvili must have known about the report.
“It’s a well-planned act aimed at scheming new armed conflicts in the Caucasus region,” he said.
Imedi was pro-opposition until police stormed its studios in 2007 at the height of opposition protests, deepening concern over media freedom and marginalization of the opposition under Saakashvili since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept him to power.
“This is a continuation of the political terror in Georgia aimed at burying the opposition,” Nogaideli said.
Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Moscow
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