The interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev that aired on American television on July 29 dealt a serious blow to the Kremlin. Russian authorities made desperate efforts to prevent the ABC television network from broadcasting the interview on its “Nightline” news program. The Russian Embassy in Washington sent its protest to ABC several hours before the show aired (Kommersant, July 30). When the interview was broadcast, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would not renew ABC’s accreditation in Russia for the next year (RIA-Novosti, August 2).
There are several reasons why Russian authorities are so angry at the interview with Basaev. First of all, the Chechen rebel commander called himself a “terrorist,” but at the same time he explained convincingly that the Russian side was also responsible for the violence and the wave of terror in the Caucasus and Central Russia. Talking about the Beslan and Nord-Ost terrorist attacks, Basaev pointed out that most of the hostages died because of gas (in Moscow) and flame throwers and tanks (in Beslan) used by federal forces during so-called “rescue operations” rather than because of actions by his men.
To take at least part of the responsibility for the Chechen war means the Kremlin would partly open the door for negotiations with the rebels, which the Russian government is very afraid to start. Meanwhile, to have Basaev or somebody else reveal the truth about operations in which Moscow’s representatives all but ignored the lives of hostages could unleash anger among Russian society and give another strong argument to the anti-Putin opposition movement. At the same time, the Russian government is unhappy with the fact that major Western media sources are queuing to interview Basaev but almost ignore President Alu Alkhanov, First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, and other pro-Russian Chechen leaders handpicked by Moscow.
However, it is not just the interview, but also the way it was produced that partly explains the Kremlin’s disappointment.
Basaev was interviewed by Andrei Babitsky, a well-known Radio Liberty correspondent who had reported from behind rebel lines at the start of the second Chechen campaign in mid-1999. In January 2000 federal officials detained Babitsky as he tried to leave Grozny, the Chechen capital. He spent one month in detention before he was freed.
Babitsky subsequently left Russia for Prague, where Radio Liberty has offices, but in 2003 he returned to Chechnya to visit rebel bases in the mountains. Late in June of this year he went to the Caucasus again to meet, as he said, Doku Umarov, a Chechen commander and vice-president of the separatist government. Babitsky entered Russia from Ukraine and went by car to Ingushetia, a republic adjacent to Chechnya. A rebel, whom he had met in the Ingush village of Sleptsovskaya, took him to another village, named Nesterovskaya.
Nesterovskaya lies at the intersection of two roads leading to the mountainous part of the republic. One of the roads goes to the mountain village of Arshti and then on to the Chechen settlement of Bamut. The rebel envoy accompanying Babitsky brought him to this road in Nesterovskaya and asked the reporter to go to a car waiting for him on the roadside. Babitsky said later that he was shocked when he saw Basaev himself sitting in the back seat of the car. Basaev and Babitsky reached the Chechen border and walked into the woods on the Chechen side. The journalist spent two days at a secret rebel base interviewing Basaev (Kommersant, July 30).
The details of Babitsky’s journey show how weakly federal officials control the North Caucasus and revealed lies told by the generals. Just four months ago Nikolai Rogozhkin, the commander of Russia’s Interior troops, had said that Basaev was lying low because was scared. “Hardly anybody has heard Basaev’s voice recently,” Rogozhkin added confidently (RIA-Novosti, April 15).
Nevertheless, as we know now, such statements contradict reality. Basaev can travel by car not only in Chechnya, but also in Ingushetia and probably in other North Caucasus republics as well. The Babitsky story of his meeting with Basaev in Ingushetia forced security officials to respond. The Kremlin has made the Ingush Ministry of Interior Affairs the scapegoat. They are blamed instead of the army, Russian police special units, and Federal Security Service (FSB). The Ingush police were ordered to lie to the media.
“If Basaev or his men had been in Ingushetia, they would have been immediately arrested,” declared Murat Zurabov, head of the Press Service of the Ingush Interior Ministry (RIA-Novosti, August 1).
In reality, however, the Kremlin now trusts the Ingush police even less than before. Two days after the interview was televised, Ingushetia’s roads were crowded with Russian troops who had set up mobile checkpoints at all main intersections. Supported by armored trucks and armored personnel carriers, masked servicemen check suspicious cars and their passengers while military aircraft patrol above Ingush towns and villagers. The larger groups of soldiers are stationed near the approaches to Sleptsovskaya and Nesterovskaya settlements, the area where Basaev met Babitsky.
The hunt for Basaev is underway, but the warlord is unlikely to appear where he knows his enemies are lying in wait. Basaev gained a small victory over Vladimir Putin by meeting Babitsky in Nesterovskaya, and there is nothing else for the Russian president to do but to blame ABC television for his public humiliation.