Besides the immediate concerns over Andrei Babitsky’s well-being, his reported exchange for Russian POWs being held by the Chechen rebels raises other disturbing questions. As his lawyer Genri Reznik and others have pointed out, the exchange suggests that the authorities, without formally charging or putting him on trial, have de facto declared him an ally or even a member of the Chechen rebel formations. This means that any journalist who tries to report from the rebel side of the Chechen conflict risks the same treatment.
There are also signs that the authorities may be preparing the ground for accusations against other media–or even to extend the possible grounds for accusing media of collaboration with the Chechen rebels. Federal Security Service spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich said in interviews yesterday and today that unnamed “Arab countries” had sent US$1.5 billion to Russia to lobby the Chechen cause in the Russian media and to “destabilize the situation in the country” (Russian agencies, February 3; NTV, February 4). Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also alleged that US$1.5 billion had been sent to back the Chechen cause in the media. He added that terrorists may be planning an attack on Acting President Vladimir Putin (Russian agencies, February 3). Many observers regard Zhirinovsky as a stalking horse for the Kremlin. Putin and other top officials warned earlier this month that Chechen groups may be planning terrorist attacks in Russia, and one top Chechen field commander, Khattab, threatened that such attacks might indeed be carried out.
In general, the Russian authorities’ paranoia vis-a-vis the media has been on the increase. Earlier this month, the Kremlin chief of staff asked the FSB to be vigilant in preventing Western organizations and individuals from interfering in Russia’s presidential election campaign. That election is scheduled for March 26.
MOSCOW TELLS ESTONIA THAT TARTU TREATY DOESN’T COUNT.