Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 138

Vladimir Putin’s press conference yesterday (July 18) also touched on more controversial themes. A BBC correspondent, for example, asked the Russian president about an “information security doctrine” promulgated by the Kremlin last year, which, among other things, charged that unnamed countries were trying “to infringe upon Russia’s interests and dominate in the global sphere of information and “force Russia out of domestic and international information markets” and said that there was a need to “clarify” the status of foreign media and foreign journalists working in Russia (see the Monitor, September, 15, 2000). Putin admitted that some of the formulations might have been done differently, but denied that the doctrine was influencing or interfering with “the real activities of the mass media.” He also criticized the fact that the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty is allowed to operate and broadcast inside Russia while the U.S. government has refused to grant analogous privileges to Russian state-run radio stations like Radio Rossiya and Radio Mayak. After this exchange, Radio Liberty’s correspondent asked the Russian president whether allegations of human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya had led him to reconsider his approach to resolving the Chechen crisis. Putin said he had no intention to change his approach to the Chechnya issue, arguing that the “mestasis” of Islamic radicalism had penetrated Russia’s North Caucasus and that it would be an “unforgivable mistake” to allow Chechnya to remain “a beachhead for attacks on the Russian Federation.” When Alice Lagnado of Britain’s The Times newspaper shouted that Putin had not answered the question and asked about alleged abuses committed by Russian forces recently during so-called zachistki (“cleansing” operations) in the villages of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, the head of state became visibly angry, arguing that “fundamentalists” try to provoke federal troops into committing excesses and admitting that federal troops do not “always succeed in not falling for these provocations.” Putin said those who commit abuses against civilians should be punished, but countered that zachistki were simply passport checks aimed at capturing wanted criminals and that Russia should be “thanked” for intervening in Chechnya in 1999, given that people were being arbitrarily shot and beheaded there during the republic’s de facto independence. Putin also claimed that the republic’s judicial system had been fully restored but that the Chechen rebels had killed forty pro-Moscow religious and regional administration officials.

Putin was also asked about another controversial issue–the activities of Boris Berezovsky, the powerful Yeltsin-era oligarch who went into self-imposed exile last year after openly accusing Putin of authoritarian tendencies. After a pause, Putin responded: “Boris Berezovsky–who is that?”–an answer greeted by laughter and applause. The head of state called Berezovsky an “irrepressible, indefatigable man” who is constantly “appointing someone or overthrowing someone,” adding: “Let him labor.” At the same time Putin said that he welcomed Berezovsky’s promises to mount a political opposition. “If he finds something that we do wrong and presents it to the public, we should be only grateful to him because it should correct our behavior,” he said. “He is a clever man, maybe he will uncover something?”

In an interview published last week, Berezovsky predicted that Putin would be replaced before the end of the year by “one of the governors Putin is trying to crush while pursuing the shortsighted goal of achieving centralization” (La Repubblica, July 12). Some observers have speculated that Berezovsky, who has promised to fund the opposition political activities of disgruntled democrats and has already begun funding various civil society and human rights projects, may actually be acting as a “pocket opposition” for Putin, helping to discredit the anti-Putin opposition at home simply by supporting it while cleansing his disreputable image in the West (Moscow Times, July 16; see also the Monitor, June 4, 18). Interestingly, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky last week held up TV-6, the television channel owned by Berezovsky, as proof that there are still independent information sources in Russia (Radio Ekho Moskvy, July 10).