?Observers of Russian domestic politics over the last fortnight could be forgiven for feeling that the political winds were getting chillier. The detention and subsequent disappearance of Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty correspondent who had been reporting from Chechnya, seemed to be a sign that Russia was turning back towards its not-too-distant undemocratic past. That, at least, is how Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia and media viewed it.
Babitsky was detained by Russian forces in Chechnya in mid-January–not long after video footage he had taken from the Chechen rebel side of the battle for Djohar, the Chechen capital, was shown on the private NTV television channel. Like his reports for Radio Liberty, the NTV footage, which included shots of slain and captured Russian servicemen, and terrified civilians cowering in basements under Russian bombardment, did not jibe with the Kremlin’s official version of the war. While the proximate cause for Babitsky’s detention was that he did not have the proper accreditation to report from the war zone, Russian officials would accuse him of having joined the “illegal armed formations”–Moscow’s bureaucratic legal term for the Chechen rebel groups — or giving them “moral support.”
The most chilling part of the Babitsky story, however, came on February 3, when Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s point-man on Chechnya, announced that the correspondent had been “exchanged” to Chechen rebels in return for Russian POWs. Babitsky, of course, had not been put on trial, formally charged with any crime or even allowed to see a lawyer. But Yastrzhembsky said the “exchange” was voluntary–initiated by rebel commanders, and agreed to by Babitsky. The Russian government, he added, would take no further responsibility for his fate. If that weren’t enough, video footage of the “exchange” shown the next day on Russian television channels looked like little more than a group of soldiers or security men handing over a hostage to unknown persons in ski-masks. Indeed, Babitsky’s colleagues and others theorized that he had been handed over either to Bislan Gantemirov’s pro-Russian Chechen militia, to professional Chechen kidnappers or that Russia’s special services had simply staged a fake exchange and continued to hold the correspondent. Whatever the case, the feeling of gloom grew each day that Babitsky failed to call his family or office, and intensified further with reports that he had been incarcerated in a “filtration center” on Chechen territory under Russian military control, where he was severely beaten. In what some viewed as the height of cynicism, the Prosecutor General’s Office subsequently summoned the Radio Liberty correspondent to appear before investigators looking into his alleged support for the Chechen “illegal armed formations.”