TSKHINVALI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a performance of Tchaikovsky among the bombed-out buildings of South Ossetia on Thursday in a concert he said was to alert the world to the region’s suffering.
An ethnic Ossetian and one of Russia’s best-known musicians, Gergiev lambasted Georgia for shelling the region’s capital in a failed assault this month and drew a parallel with the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001.
Gergiev — who grew up in the neighboring Russian region of North Ossetia — visited the devastated Jewish Quarter of South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, before conducting a special concert on the town’s central square.
“When the U.S. lost three and a half thousand people on September 11th, Russia became the first country to express its support,” said Gergiev, referring to the al Qaeda attacks in 2001 which in fact killed nearly 3,000.
“For South Ossetia to lose 1,500 or 2,000 people today is a terrible tragedy but no one knows about it,” he said. “To shoot at kids, at children from a tank, it’s a shame and the world should know about this shame.”
Georgia has denied using excessive forces in its assault, and counters that Russian and its separatist allies have committed abuses against ethnic Georgians who had been living inside South Ossetia.
Dressed in black, Gergiev conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies on an open-air stage outside Tskhinvali’s wrecked parliament building.
Children sat with candles beside policemen as locals waved the Russian flag and two armored personnel carriers kept guard.
Gergiev then conducted Shostakovich’s Seventh symphony, loaded with symbolism for Russians who know it as the Leningrad symphony and associate it with the Nazi siege of that city during World War Two.
“I am very hopeful that music will help bring the best of memories and we are here to remember those who died in the tragic days of this aggression,” Gergiev said in English.
He said about 2,000 people died in the first days of fighting. Georgia disputes that figure.
Russian forces repelled the Georgian invasion and then pushed further into Georgia, provoking an storm of international criticism. Washington said Moscow’s actions had evoked Cold War memories of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.
Currently director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Gergiev was born in Moscow but spent his childhood in North Ossetia.
South Ossetia, a small, pro-Russian province which broke away from Georgian rule in 1992 after a war, says it will ask the Kremlin to recognize it as an independent state.
Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia’s separatist leader, told a rally of several thousand people earlier on Thursday that Georgia had undermined its own statehood by trying to seize his region by force on August 7-8.
Widows and mothers in black, with photographs of their loved ones pinned to their chests, wept as Kokoity lambasted Georgia and its Western backers.
“I have already prepared an address to the president of the Russian Federation ... and to the heads of state of the international community, with a request to recognize our independence,” Kokoity said.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood