Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 27

The case of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky is becoming more sinister and Kafka-esque with each passing day. Babitsky was detained in Chechnya in mid-January and then putatively handed over to Chechen rebel commanders on February 3 in exchange for three Russian POWs. While it has been five days since the “exchange” took place, neither his wife nor his colleagues have heard from him. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, said yesterday that Babitsky is alive, but added: “I do not know where he is … it is not our business” (Russian agencies, February 7). However, both Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov have said that they have no information about the exchange, Babitsky’s whereabouts or his fate (Radio Liberty, February 5, 7). In an even more bizarre twist, the North Caucasus department of the Prosecutor General’s Office said yesterday that “new circumstances” had come to light about Babitsky’s alleged participation in “illegal armed formations”–referring to the Chechen rebel groups–and that if Babitsky did not appear voluntarily to give evidence, he would be sought out and arrested. Justice Minister Yuri Chaika reiterated that Babitsky must appear for questioning, but said he himself had no idea where the journalist was (Russian agencies, February 7). Babitsky’s lawyer, Genri Reznik, called the comments by officials “utter cynicism” and “a mockery of common sense” (Segodnya, February 8). As former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov put it: “To turn over a journalist to bandits, and then demand that he appear for questioning–this is black humor” (Kommersant, February 8).

The entire episode has been filled with contradictory claims and statements on the part of Russian officials. On February 2, Russian officials announced that Babitsky, who was detained in Chechnya last month for not having proper journalistic accreditation and on suspicion of having joined the “illegal armed formations,” would be released and taken to Moscow as long as he agreed not to leave the Russian capital. In announcing the “exchange” the following day, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s point man on Chechnya, claimed that it had been requested by Chechen field commanders and that Babitsky had agreed to it. While the exchange apparently took place on February 3 and a video clip supposedly documenting it was shown on several Russian television channels the following day, no Russian agency–law enforcement or otherwise–has admitted to having organized it. Strangely, however, the FSB has admitted that the video was taken by one of its cameramen. Yastrzhembsky said yesterday that the exchange had been carried out “with the agreement of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry” (Russian agencies, February 7). Later in the day, Yastrzhembsky further muddied the waters, announcing that Chechen rebels had freed a total of five Russian servicemen in exchange for Babitsky. Yastrzhembsky repeated that he had no idea where Babitsky was, and said as well that Acting President Vladimir Putin “is aware of what is going on” in the Babitsky case (Russian agencies, February 7). Putin has not yet commented publicly on it.