Another cold front threatening the warmth between Washington and Moscow that has prevailed since September 11 appeared on the horizon last week, when Radio Liberty, the U.S. Congress-funded radio station, began broadcasting in three languages of Russia’s North Caucasus region–Circassian, Avar and, most controversially, Chechen. The broadcasts had been delayed for a month at the U.S. State Department’s request, but once the decision was made to proceed, Russia’s Foreign Ministry lodged an official protest before the broadcasts’ launch date, calling them “incompatible with the common fight against terrorism” and “the spirit of the partnership that is forming between Russia and the United States.”
Russian officialdom’s reaction to the first broadcasts was even more outraged. Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, predicted the Chechen-language programming would become a “direct Udugov trumpet”–a reference to Chechen rebel ideologist Movladi Udugov–while both Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Il’yasov and anonymous Russia’s Defense Ministry officials were quoted as saying that if the broadcasts included “false,” “dangerous,” or “nonobjective” information, they would be jammed. The State Duma’s international affairs committee reportedly began drafting an appeal to the Russian government asking it to revoke Radio Liberty’s broadcasting license. Russian officials have previously hinted that the station, which has frequently interviewed various Chechen rebel leaders, could lose its license for violating Russia’s antiterrorism law, which allows a court to order the withdrawal of a broadcasting outlet’s license if it has received more than two warnings for interviewing or quoting “terrorists.”
The Kremlin was not much happier over Radio Liberty’s new Caucasus focus. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya-related issues, noted that Radio Liberty’s maiden broadcast in Chechen had featured excerpts from an article by Anna Politkovskaya, Chechnya correspondent for the biweekly Novaya Gazeta, concerning human rights abuses allegedly committed by Russian troops during a “zachistka,” or antiguerrilla sweep, in the Chechen village of Starye Atagi this past January. Why, he asked rhetorically, hadn’t the broadcast covered the order recently given by the commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi, setting out guidelines for forces carrying out such special operations aimed at increasing oversight and accountability and therefore reducing the possibility for abuses against civilians? All of this suggested, Yastrzhembsky said, that the “pessimistic prognoses” about the new Radio Liberty broadcasts were “beginning to come true.”
For his part, President Putin, perhaps regretting having commented on the detention of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky back in early 2000, remained above the controversy. He even played good cop, insisting during his interview with German and Russian journalists in Moscow that he welcomed Western expressions of concern over Russian actions, including those in the Caucasus. He continued, however, to insist that Moscow’s war in Chechnya and the U.S.-led war against international terrorism were one and the same, and, during an appearance with Gerhard Schroeder on a German television talk show, argued that it was impossible to avoid human rights violations while carrying out an antiterrorist operation. These comments came just days after Memorial, the Russian human rights group, reported that more than 2,000 people had disappeared in Chechnya, mostly as a result of antiguerrilla sweeps, since the start of the military operation there in September 1999. Meanwhile a chilling account by Anna Politkovskaya of alleged rapes, beating, torture and extortion by Russian forces during the security operation in Starye Atagi this past January appeared in various Western publications, including Britain’s The Observer newspaper. In it, Politkovskaya, an honest journalist as well as a brave one, noted that inhabitants of the village had also been victimized by Islamist rebel forces, who entered the village just days after the Russian forces had completed their antiguerrilla sweep there (apparently unsuccessfully) and withdrew.