Chechnya Suffers Information Blockade

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 12

Aslan Doukaev, director of the North Caucasus service of Radio Liberty, has provided some revealing observations about Chechens’ current reading habits in an interview published in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy. Lively discussions of Chechnya’s history and cultural identity are taking place among the Chechen diaspora, but the populace living within Chechnya is largely cut off from access to these intellectual currents. “Antiwar books don’t reach the territory at all,” said Doukaev, “and possessing books on Chechen aspirations for independence can be life-threatening. We received reports of people being executed when Russian soldiers found such books or video materials. A teacher in northern Chechnya was arrested simply for receiving in the mail the latest book by Alla Dudaeva, the widow of the slain Chechen president. That teacher spent three days being interrogated by officers in the Federal Security Service, the Russian secret service, which ultimately burned the book in front of him.”

Despite the proliferation of websites about Chechnya–both multi-lingual and in the Chechen language–the near total lack of telephone service within the republic makes these information sources effectively inaccessible to most Chechens. Doukaev observed that “in the computer room of the university, students are greeted by a sign prohibiting access to Chechen sites produced abroad.”

Meanwhile, a local man working as a driver and assistant for an American journalist in Chechnya was released on March 12 after a month in captivity. Ruslan Soltakhanov, who had helped Moscow correspondent Rebecca Santana of the Cox newspaper chain in her reports on Chechnya, had been abducted by unidentified men from his home in neighboring North Ossetia on February 13. The Russian authorities had failed to respond to inquiries from Cox newspapers about the case.

Shortly before the kidnapping, FSB officers harassed Santana at the airport in Mineralnye Vody as she was about to fly back to Moscow. They confiscated her notebooks, mobile phone, undeveloped film and personal data assistant. These items were returned to her the next day in Moscow, but her film had been developed.

Santana said that Soltakhanov’s detention was “undoubtedly connected with the fact that he had been working with me and [was] designed as an attempt to punish him for his actions.”