On March 29, Kelly McEvers, an American freelance journalist, was detained in the city of Khasavyurt, Dagestan, when she was leaving the city accompanied by a local reporter from the Chernovik newspaper. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that McEvers was taken to the Khasavyurt Interior Ministry headquarters, where police officers and Federal Security Service (FSB) agents questioned her for 10 hours about her research into the insurgency in the republic. They confiscated her camera, tape recorder, computer disks and notebooks, she said.
The next day McEvers was detained again in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. Police officers took her to the Interior Ministry’s Directorate for Organized Crime (UBOP), where officials questioned her and then searched her apartment in the capital for six hours. Law enforcement officials confiscated her laptop computer. Investigators threatened to charge McEvers with terrorist activities for allegedly having information about an ambush against a Russian military convoy in the Nozhai-Yurt district of Chechnya in 2005. In other words, the security officials blackmailed the journalist, forcing her to leave the North Caucasus as soon as possible. Finally, on April 3, McEvers was forced to go to Moscow and then back to Washington. According to her lawyer, the authorities forbade her to return to the region.
The detention of a U.S. citizen, especially a journalist, in a foreign country is always hot news for the international media. The response of U.S. authorities usually follows immediately in such cases. The rough arrest of a well-known U.S. journalist on Russian territory without any reasonable explanation should have had serious grounds, given that such an incident could worsen the already troubled U.S.-Russian relationship.
So, what was the real reason for the detention of Kelly McEvers in Dagestan?
First, it should be noted that Kelly McEvers is an experienced journalist. Unlike those Western journalists who go to the North Caucasus in a convoy and make their analyses based on information provided by security officials, McEvers is capable enough to break through the propaganda barriers and myths that had been created by the FSB and understand the situation in the North Caucasus in-depth.
The authorities might also have been worried about her itinerary in Dagestan, which included Khasavyurt, Derbent and the villages of Gunib and Gimri, which are among the republic’s most troubled areas in which the insurgency is especially strong. The FSB might have suspected that McEvers was looking for contacts with the Dagestani rebels, and it is well-known how nervous the Kremlin becomes when journalists receive information from the opposite side or meet with rebel leaders. The fact that Kelly was accompanied by a journalist from Chernovik, a Dagestani newspaper famous for its sharp criticism of the rough methods that security officials use in the republic to fight terrorism, might have made the FSB think that McEvers would gather information about the numerous human rights violations in Dagestan.
Yet the problem could be more serious then just the desire of Russian authorities to get rid of an independent and inquisitive U.S. journalist. First, the Kremlin is not interested in letting the Americans know what is really going on in the volatile Russian south. Russian officials regard all Americans who go to the North Caucasus, be they members of humanitarian organizations or journalists, as spies, and do not hide their objective of closing off the region to U.S. observation. A source in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow told Jamestown that “the Russian officials often say during the meetings that ‘we won’t let you [Americans] be there [in the North Caucasus.]'” There is a widespread opinion in Russia that the Americans are interested in destabilizing the region to weaken Russia, and the Kremlin itself has such a view. On September 4, 2004, after the Beslan tragedy, President Vladimir Putin said in his appeal to the nation that “some want to tear away a fat piece from us [Russia], and others help them. They help because they believe that Russia is still a threat to them as a major nuclear power. So this threat should be eliminated. And terrorism is, of course, just an instrument to achieve these goals” (Interfax, September 4, 2004). It was clear to everybody in Russia who watched Putin’s speech on TV that it was the Americans who still regarded Russia as a threat. That same day, Mikhail Leontyev, anchor of Odnako, a political program on the state’s Channel One television, openly blamed the United States for the terrorist attack in Beslan, thus making Putin’s statement even more clear.
Since then, the Russian authorities have unofficially tended to explain away all failures in the war with the Caucasian insurgency or their inability to apprehend Shamil Basaev by referring to nefarious schemes of Americans. The latest example is Ramzan Kadyrov’s recent statement that assistance from foreign secret services helps Basaev remain on the run. Ramzan did not mention the CIA, but this acronym can be heard very often in closed meetings with Russian and pro-Russian Chechen officials. Last year, Taus Dzhabrailov, who was the head of the Chechen pro-Russian State Council at the time, said in a speech at a meeting in the Presidential Palace Hotel in Moscow, which this author attended, that U.S. “scissors” wanted to cut the North Caucasus away from Russia. Dzhabrailov simply rehashed the phrase from Putin’s appeal, making it more blunt.
It is quite understandable why the Kremlin needs to boost the myth among Russians that the U.S. government is involved in assisting the Chechen and the North Caucasian insurgency. In this case, there is no need to explain to the public why the government is not only unable to beat the insurgency in Chechnya, but even fails to quell the militants’ attempts to organize large-scale terrorist attacks in Russia and to spread the war throughout whole North Caucasus. “The insurgency is so powerful because the Americans help them” is the unofficial explanation that the Russian authorities have tried to sell to the population for the last several years.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Kremlin clearly fears trips by Americans to the North Caucasus demonstrates that the Russian officials really believe in the myth that they themselves created. The people behind the Kremlin walls are genuinely frightened of the prospect that the United States might use the North Caucasus, Vladimir Putin’s Achilles Heel, as leverage to bring pressure on the Russian authorities. The people in the Kremlin remember very well how the Americans helped the mujahideen in Afghanistan and that the defeat of the Soviets in this war resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. That same scenario could be easily repeated if only the Americans wanted to do this. Georgia, which is now in a state of cold war with Russia, could play the role that Pakistan played in the Afghan war—the rear for the guerillas and a route to deliver money and weapons to them. Russian officials seriously believe that some day this nightmare may come true.
The further relations between the United States and Russia deteriorate, the more the Kremlin will be suspicious of the American interest in Putin’s Achilles Heel—the North Caucasus.