A fake Georgian TV news report breathlessly detailing a massive Russian invasion of Georgia appeared so terrifyingly real that it caused cellphone networks to crash while thousands of people poured into the streets of Tbilisi and other cities to besiege ATM machines, food stores, and gas stations.
Doctored videotapes played on Georgia's pro-government Imedi TV Saturday night showed Russian President Dmitri Medvedev allegedly ordering the invasion and a breathless update reported that Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili had been assassinated.
The Georgian opposition, painted as traitorous supporters of the fake Russian invasion in the broadcast, was outraged, perhaps no one more so than Nino Burdzhanadze. Ms. Burzahanadze, who last week traveled to Moscow to explore the possibility for political dialogue with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was described as the head of a Russian-installed "peoples' government" at the end of the fictional broadcast.
Burdzhanadze says she deeply resents being depicted as a "pro-Russia traitor" and warned that she intends to sue Imedi in a Georgian court. In a telephone interview, Burdzhanadze said she believes that Saakashvili ordered the broadcast as a propaganda exercise to sow anti-Russian panic and tar Georgia's opposition, which has been calling for his resignation for more than a year with the brush of alleged disloyalty.
Fooling the experts
"Everything seemed so believable that I didn't doubt it was true," says Shorena Lortkipanidze, an expert with the independent Center for Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, who was alone in her Tbilisi flat with her three young children when she watched the frighteningly realistic "simulation" about a hypothetical repeat of 2008's Russo-Georgian war.
"Imedi is a serious news station, with a lot of credibility, and there was nothing on the screen to say this was all hypothetical," she says. "It said that Tbilisi was going to be bombed. I panicked, and my only thought was, 'How will I save my children?' "
It says a lot that a professional political analyst like Ms. Lortkipanidze was taken in by the 20-minute broadcast, which reported that Russian tanks had burst out of the pro-Moscow enclave of South Ossetia and were racing toward Tbilisi while Russian bombers were pounding the country's airports and harbors At the end of the broadcast, a brief announcement informed viewers that it had been "a special report on possible future developments."
The impact of the broadcast is already being compared to the infamous 1938 "War of the Worlds" hoax authored by Orson Welles, which sowed panic among some radio listeners and convinced thousands of Americans that the end of the world was at hand.
"It's still impossible to understand what this was, some weird joke or a deliberate attempt to traumatize the population" for political purposes, says Mamuka Nebieridze, director of the independent Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Tbilisi.
Amid a storm of public protests, the head of Imedi, Giorgi Aveladze – who is a close friend of President Saakashvili – apologized for the confusion but rejected demands that he resign. He said the purpose of the broadcast was to stimulate public discussion about the very real threat Russia still poses to Georgia.
In televised remarks Sunday, Mr. Saakashvili also appeared to dismiss concerns over the phony report.
"It was indeed a very unpleasant program, but the most unpleasant thing is that it is extremely close to what can happen and to what Georgia's enemy has conceived," Saakashvili said.
Georgian opposition leader outraged
"Everyone in Georgia knows that the boss of Imedi fulfills instructions given him by the president," opposition leader Ms. Burdzhanadze told the Monitor. "This story illustrates the true nature of our leaders, who don't care about consequences at all. That [fake report] threw the population into a state of fear and shock, but the aim of it was to intimidate the opposition and blacken its name."
She suggests the broadcast may have been prepared as a riposte to her successful visit to Moscow last week, in which she met with Prime Minister Putin and agreed on the need to repair Georgian-Russian relations, which have been roiled by tension since the end of their brief war nearly two years ago.
"When I decided to go to Moscow to establish contact, Saakashvili declared me an enemy of the people," she says. "For him, any improvement in relations with Russia is negative. He wants to claim that he's not responsible for the bad relationship, that it's just impossible to talk with Russia on principle. With my trip, I tried to demonstrate that it may not be easy, but it is possible to talk with Moscow."
Russia sees hand of the Georgian state involved
Russian officials say they are sure the fake broadcast was a "prepared action" designed to undermine Georgian-Russian dialogue, and not just the idea of a few journalists.
"We noticed that the Georgian Army and special services were calm and silent, a sure sign that it was an agreed action," says Konstantin Zatullin, head of the State Duma's committee for Commonwealth of Independent States affairs.
He said that Russia is furious over the fakery. "The use of President Medvedev's image, with false words put into his mouth, is unheard of. Is this what passes for normal on Georgia's pro-presidential TV?"
Georgian experts say they fear the country's political crisis will only sharpen as it heads into a controversial election for Tbilisi mayor in May, and the opposition contemplates another round of street protests aimed at unseating Saakashvili.
Last month Ukraine's pro-Western leader, Viktor Yushchenko, was defeated in presidential elections and replaced by the Moscow-leaning Viktor Yanukovich – a geopolitical shift whose implications have hit hard in Georgia and help to explain why people would feel so traumatized by a realistic false report of war.
"Ukraine's change has affected people here very deeply," says Lortkipanidze of the Center for Conflict and Negotiation. "Having a close friend and ideological partner in your own neighborhood was a big support, and now that Yushchenko is gone, there is a feeling in Georgia that we are completely alone."