Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 67

Radio Liberty, the U.S. government-funded radio station, began broadcasting in three North Caucasus languages, Chechen, Avar and Circassian, on April 3. In late February, the station’s parent company, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, decided to delay the broadcasts for about a month at the request of the U.S. State Department (see the Monitor, March 1).

The first broadcast in Chechen this week included the reading of excerpts from an article by Anna Politkovskaya, correspondent for the biweekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, about alleged human rights abuses committed by Russian forces during an antiguerrilla sweep in the Chechen town of Starye Atagi this past January. This, not surprisingly, brought a sharp rebuke from Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on issues related to Chechnya. Yastrzhembsky rhetorically asked why the broadcast did not cover the order recently given by Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, which put antiguerrilla special operations under his direct control and set out guidelines that the forces carrying them out must follow, which are aimed at increasing oversight and accountability. “The issue–the action of servicemen [in Chechnya]–was shown from one side only, through the prism of the well-known position of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya,” Yastrzhembsky said (, April 4). Yastrzhembsky was quoted elsewhere as saying that the “pessimistic prognoses” concerning the new Radio Liberty broadcasts were “beginning to come true.” He was apparently not alone in this view: the Interfax news agency quoted Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky as saying that Radio Liberty’s decision to broadcast in Chechen demonstrated “the tactlessness typical of American politicians.”

RFE/RL spokeswoman Sonia Winter, meanwhile, urged the Russian government not to pass judgment on the basis of one broadcast and to “continue listening” before making up its mind (Associated Press, April 4). Winter noted that the Russian government had judged Radio Liberty’s new broadcasts “ahead of time,” and it is indeed true that while Yastrzhembsky had earlier said he would follow the broadcasts closely and only afterwards pass judgment, the Russian side protested them before they began. On Tuesday (April 2), the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow summoned a senior U.S. diplomat, who was handed a note warning that the start of “propaganda broadcasts” to a region that includes Chechnya, “where active measures to combat extremism and religious fanaticism are being carried out as part of an antiterrorist operation, may complicate the efforts of the federal authorities to stabilize the situation in that region.” The start of such broadcasts, the note continued, “is incompatible with the common fight against terrorism, with the spirit of the partnership that is forming between Russia and the United States.”

Meanwhile, Aleksei Volin, deputy chief of the Russian government’s apparatus, warned that the start of Radio Liberty’s Chechen-language broadcasts could have an adverse effect not only on Russia, but also on the United States, because the station’s owners will have little control over the broadcasts. “Broadcasting in the Chechen language will be carried out by representatives of radical Chechen groups. One has to consider that there aren’t people in the United States who know the Chechen language,” Volin claimed, adding that radical Chechen groups may use the broadcasts for their own propaganda purposes. “The start of broadcasting in the Chechen language can be seen as a step not aimed at stabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus and fraught with the possible spread of extremism not only in Russia, but to other countries, as a result of contacts between Chechen terrorists and international terrorist organizations,” Volin said (, Interfax, Reuters, March 2).

It is worth recalling that back in January, Yastrzhembsky noted that Radio Liberty was licensed by the Press Ministry to broadcast in Russia, adding that were the station to violate the law, legal measures might be taken against its “representation in Russia”–an apparent reference to its Moscow bureau. “The first measure is a warning,” Yastrzhembsky noted at the time. “After a second violation–the withdrawal of its license to broadcast in Russia and the closing of its bureau. We have no means other than legal ones.” Yastrzhembsky was apparently referring to Russia’s antiterrorism law, according to which a court can order the withdrawal of a broadcasting outlet’s license if it has received more than two warnings for interviewing or quoting “terrorists.” These would apparently include Aslan Maskhadov and other Chechen rebel leaders, who have frequently been interviewed on Radio Liberty (, January 28; see the Monitor, January 28).