Pressure on Radio Liberty’s operations increased at the end of last week, when Sergei Stepashin, head of the Audit Chamber, the watchdog agency that monitors government expenditures, said he was in favor of suspending the broadcasting license of the U.S. Congress-funded radio station. Earlier this month, Radio Liberty began broadcasting in Chechen, Avar and Circassian, the main languages of three national republics in Russia’s North Caucasus region–Chechnya, Dagestan and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, respectively. “I think raising the issue of depriving Radio Liberty of its license to broadcast on our country’s territory is absolutely correct,” said Stepashin, who emphasized that he was putting forward his personal view, not that of the Audit Chamber. “The United States isn’t shy about introducing elements of military censorship in the course of its antiterrorist operations,” he added. “It would be very interesting to see the reaction of the United States and the whole world as broadcasts in support of the al-Qaida terrorist movement started in Russian somewhere on American territory…. We don’t need Radio Liberty and I completely fail to understand the practice of people who employ a dual morality” (Lenta.ru, Radio Ekho Moskvy, RTR, April 12). Stepashin formerly served as Russia’s prime minister, interior minister and security chief.
Stepashin’s comments were just the latest criticism from Russian officials and members of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government about Radio Liberty’s broadcasts in Chechen, Circassian and Avar, which began on April 3 (after a month’s delay). Sergei Yastrzhembsky charged that the maiden broadcast in Chechen was one-sided while Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration said the Chechen-language broadcasts would become a propaganda instrument for the Chechen rebels. Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Il’yasov and anonymous Russian Defense Ministry officials were quoted as saying that the broadcasts might be jammed if they included “false,” “dangerous” or “nonobjective” information. Russian officialdom condemned the broadcasts even before they started. The day before the new Caucasus programming went on the air, the Foreign Ministry passed on to a senior U.S. diplomat an official complaint denouncing the planned “propaganda broadcasts” to Chechnya. At the same time, Aleksei Volin, deputy head of the Russian government’s apparatus, warned that the broadcasts might not only destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus, but also negatively affect other countries as a result of “contacts between Chechen terrorists and international terrorist organizations” (see the Monitor, April 5; Russia’s Week, April 10).
Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s press minister told the state’s RIA Novosti news agency last week that he had discussed the Chechen-language broadcasts during meetings in Washington with members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which governs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the station’s heads on April 10. Lesin said he told the American side that Russia would view giving airtime to “terrorists”–an apparent reference to the Chechen rebels–as “an unfriendly step” (Lenta.ru, April 11). According to Russia’s law on terrorism, 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 (see the Monitor, April 5, January 28). Lesin echoed warnings Yastrzhembsky made earlier this year, saying the Russian authorities would carefully follow and monitor all of Radio Liberty’s broadcasts to ensure they did not have “a propaganda effect” that could “aggravate” the situation in Chechnya. Lesin added, however, that Russia would not oppose the broadcasting of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s regular programs in Chechen. Still, the Russian press minister said it could not be ruled out that Russia’s parliament would take some kind of action in connection with Radio Liberty’s Chechen-language broadcasts (Lenta.ru, April 14). While Lesin did not specify what type of action the legislature might take, the State Duma’s international affairs committee has reportedly begun drafting an appeal to the Russian government asking it to revoke Radio Liberty’s broadcasting license (see Russia’s Week, April 10).
Aleksei Mitrofanov, a leading member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), also weighed in on the issue last week. In what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to echo the warning made last year by U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concerning videotaped broadcasts made by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Mitrofanov declared: “The broadcasts of Radio Liberty in the Chechen language can hide coded messages to the [Chechen rebel] fighters. It is understood that all kinds of disinformation and other unpleasant things can pass through the radio station” (BBC Russian Service, April 12). Meanwhile Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov announced that his ministry has set up a new “counterpropaganda” agency based in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to counter Radio Liberty’s Chechen-language broadcasts (AP, RTR, April 12).
CHISINAU CHILDREN’S CRUSADE PLODS ON.