Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 202

While Russian officialdom seems to maintain a united propaganda front in defending the military action in Chechnya, cracks are appearing in the Russian media’s coverage of the conflict. Yesterday, for example, NTV television placed a large question mark over Putin’s claim that the Russian armed forces in Chechnya have made “no large-scale errors” in their attempts to bomb Chechen fighters. The channel showed footage taken in a Chechen hospital of Chechen children who had limbs blown off. It also aired footage shot by Reuters television in Achkoi Martan, a Chechen town which has been the target of airstrikes over the last few days. This footage showed destroyed homes, dead bodies on the street and terrified local inhabitants cowering in their basements who asked why they were being targeted for death. However, the NTV correspondent traveling with Russian forces in northern Chechnya was careful in assigning blame for the October 29 attack on the refugee convoy. He noted that military officials there “categorically deny” that such an attack took place and claim that Chechen fighters deliberately use refugee columns for cover (NTV, October 31).

On the other hand, Yevgeny Kiselev, host of Itogi, NTV’s Sunday evening news analysis show, noted that Putin’s popularity could be adversely affected by such reports of civilian deaths, as well as by reports of Russian military losses–both of which, he said, were bound to increase as the war continued. NTV’s correspondent in Chechnya said Russian officials there had angrily denied earlier television reports of dead or wounded among the Russian troops, insisting that five or six soldiers have been removed from the front daily in recent days simply due to illness (NTV, October 31).

NTV–which last week aired a discussion with Western journalists which was highly critical of Russian media coverage of Chechnya (see the Monitor, October 28)–became famous for its critical coverage of the 1994-1996 Chechen war. This time, however, its apparent sudden swing toward an opposition stance may have less to do with journalistic conscience than power politics. The journalist Yulia Latynina, citing an anonymous NTV employee, recently said that NTV, like Russia’s other main television channels, had been deliberately reporting “artificially inflated” poll numbers for Putin. According to Latynina, NTV, which is part of Vladimir Gusinsky’s media empire and sympathetic to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, planned to undermine Putin’s popularity by suddenly reporting the truth about what is going on in Chechnya (see the Monitor, October 21). This may be what NTV is now doing. It is worth noting that several weeks ago, as Putin’s numbers continued to climb, Itogi suddenly dropped its weekly practice of reporting the results of a presidential preference poll regularly taken by the Public Opinion Foundation, one of Russia’s major polling agencies

For its part, Russian Public Television (ORT), which is controlled by Boris Berezovsky, broadcast a softball interview with Putin yesterday evening. On its October 30 evening news program, ORT had reported the results of its own weekly presidential preference poll. It found Putin in first place, with 25 percent support (up 3 percent from the previous week), former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in second, with 16 percent (4 percent down from the previous week), and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in third place, with 16 percent (unchanged from last week) (ORT, October 30).

With foreign criticism of Russia’s military campaign also growing, Putin today declared that his government is not seeking to conquer Chechnya, but “to destroy the terrorist stronghold in Chechnya and make its revival possible.” Speaking to the heads of Russia’s regional television, radio and telecommunications companies, the prime minister said that the federal authorities would “deal there with all political forces but we will never sit at a negotiating table with gangsters who have blood on their hands” (Russian agencies, November 1). Putin put forward a similar message in a letter published today in the Norwegian daily Dagbladet. Putin is due to travel to Oslo today for ceremonies marking the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Meanwhile, a newspaper warned today that Russia could face sanctions from the West over its actions in Chechnya, including the withholding of a US$640 million tranche from the International Monetary Fund (Vremya-MN, November 1).