Russia

Chechnya in the Russian press

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Originally published
Dispatches from Chechnya No. 27
(Based on material from the Russian press, November-December 2002)

The long information war waged by the Russian mass media against the Chechens has been whipped up into an informational reign of terror since the terrorist act in Moscow in October. Chechen topics dominated Russian newspapers from the end of October through mid-November. Under Russian law most of the authors of the articles appearing at that time could easily be charged with fascist propaganda and inciting ethnic enmity.

This is true even of the major papers that usually are reserved and correct in tone no matter what the topic. On November 13, 2002, Izvestiya published an article by Andrei Kuraev, a Russian Orthodox priest and candidate's degree-holder, entitled "War on Terrorism without the Special Forces." Father Andrei writes that it is not enough to fight terrorism in reaction to separate acts, but it is necessary to fight against the people and religion that are, in his view, the source of the terrorism. The priest draws a parallel with the modern Chechens and ancient Jews, who, he says, were rightly driven into exile for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He draws the inescapable conclusion of collective responsibility of a people for the actions of individual members. In the priest's opinion, war against the Chechens everywhere in Russia and harsh repression of them will be effective against terrorism.

In the weekly Mir novostei (no. 46, November 12, 2002), Elena Khakimova, in one article called "Mass Poisoning in Kuban," analyzes various causes for the catastrophic outbreak of food poisoning at the Kropotkin dairy-products plant. After examining the official explanation for the epidemic, she turns instead to the possibility that it was a diversion on the part of the Chechens. "Of course," she writes, "no one today will say that the mass poisoning of the inhabitants of southern Russia was a well planned and carefully executed diversion by the rebels. But certainly such a scenario is entirely possible, especially after the eloquent revelation of head bandit Maskhadov just before the audience at 'Nord-Ost' was taken hostage." The author lets reliable information takes a back seat to informational diversion despite a clear explanation for the events.

Argumenty i fakty newspaper (no. 46, November 2002) ran two articles on normalization in Chechnya by Zurab Todua, an expert on the Caucasus and Central Asia and journalist Vyacheslav Kostikov. In his pseudo-analytical article, "The War Abroad," Todua attempts to reinterpret the myths that have arisen around the Russian-Chechen conflict in the last ten years. In reality, he turns the "confusions," or myths, upside down to create commonplace propaganda, written to order, whose conclusions are that Chechnya was the aggressor in Russian-Chechen relations, and the war won't stop if Chechnya is granted independence, it will just take on new forms. Negotiations should not be entered into if they will be beneficial to Maskhadov. The pacification of Chechnya will take several decades still.

Kostikov's article, "The Mistake of Khasavyurt," also concerns normalization in Chechnya, but in a different light. In an analysis of Russian-Chechen relations since the Khasavyurt Agreement, Kostikov concludes that peace talks are futile if they involve only Maskhadov and small armed groups. Referring to the work of "Chechen specialist" Emil Pain, Kostikov suggests negotiating with a coalition made up of all political forces in Chechnya and establishing a coalition administration, which would control the armed groups. Furthermore, he says, there can be no military solution to the crisis, but only a long, hard road to peace through negotiation.

The problem of extraditing Akhmed Zakaev from Denmark received voluminous coverage in November. Nearly all Russian newspapers wrote that Denmark sympathizes with and supports terrorists.

For example, the November 16 issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda, special correspondent Elena Ovcharenko's article was titled "Danish Prime Minister Ready to Forgive Terrorists for Everything." In it, the author simply accuses the Danish administration, Prime Minister Rasmussen, and Danish society as a whole of supporting international terrorism. Ovcharenko pointedly, but without argumentation, criticizes the Danish government's chairmanship of the European Union, claiming its prominent role would have gone completely unnoticed were it not for the October events in Moscow. "But, luckily for the Danes," she writes, "they took hostages in Moscow, eliciting an outburst of joy in Copenhagen among the fans of the Chechen Mujahids." The Danes were not observing their legislation or freedom of speech by allowing the World Chechen Congress to be held in Copenhagen and by refusing to extradite Zakaev, she wrote, but instead were following political considerations as undefined by the author. Even while demanding political and economic sanctions against "disobedient" Denmark, Ovcharenko still found something good in European democracy: Denmark will be replaced as EU chairman by Greece, a country "known for its sensible and constructive approach."

An interview with former speaker of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation Ruslan Khasbulatov was published in the weekly Sobesednik (no. 44, November 13-19, 2002). He said that, after the terrorist act at "Nord-Ost," open season has been declared on Chechens in Moscow. Law enforcement agents even visited him to take his fingerprints and those of his family.

Khasbulatov's view was that the war must stop before mass repression of Chechens and other ethnic Caucasians will stop in Russia. The only real possibility for normalization in Chechnya is negotiations between the Russian government and Aslan Maskhadov. It is also very important, he continued, that developed countries take part in the reconstruction of the Chechen economy, since Russia, with its economic problems, will be unable to resurrect the ruined republic. Russian policy in Chechnya today not only does not allow for peace, it leads to continuing war and terrorism.

The anti-Chechen hysteria in the Russian press immediately after the terrorist act at "Nord-Ost" lost some of its passion over time and calmed down by the beginning of December. Articles became less aggressive, and some of them even expressed a measure of sympathy for the Chechens, which was almost entirely absent a month earlier.

In Kommersant newspaper (no. 224, December 10, 2002), there is an article by Vladimir Kara-Murza on the status of the extradition of Zakaev from England. Kara-Murza avoids evaluation of the situation and the persons involved in it, noting instead the difficulties Prime Minister Tony Blair finds himself in, needing Russia's support if a war should begin with Iraq, but not wanting to spoil relations with the European Union, which is against extradition.

An article by Vadim Rechkalov, "Ibrashka Is a Little Guy," was published on the front page of Izvestiya (no. 226, December 11, 2002). The article is based on a poll of Chechen children taken in a school in Grozny. Rechkalov writes that children 10-12 years old in Grozny do not know that they live in Russia. They consider the Russians aggressors who attacked their country, killed their relatives and destroyed their homes. Based on these observations, the author concludes that restoration of normal human relations between Chechens and Russian authority figures is one prerequisite for normal life in Chechnya.

Still despite the diminished passions in the Russian press, the political slant of most of the material appearing in the major newspapers did not change and generally reflects the official policy of the Russian government. That is not surprising in light of the strict censorship on all material dealing with Chechnya.

On the front page of Izvestiya (no. 225) on December 10, 2002 was an interview by Vadim Rechkalov with Lieutenant General Sergei Babkin, head of the FSB division in Chechnya. Babkin claims that Russian actions in Chechnya are justified and that all instances of illegal arrest and murder were perpetrated by the rebels and then blamed on FSB and Main Intelligence Division agents. According to the lieutenant general, the Russian special services conduct themselves lawfully within Chechnya, just as they do in Vladimir and Ryazan Regions. One might assume from the lieutenant general's line of thought then that Russian special services agents kidnap and murder people as a hobby in their off-duty hours since it does not happen "officially".

The only newspaper in Russia that can be called objective in its coverage of Chechen affairs is Novaya gazeta.

For many Russian citizens, Anna Politkovskaya's articles in Novaya gazeta are the only source of more-or-less accurate information on Chechnya available. A sense of pain, sympathy and shame pervades Politkovskaya's articles on the anti-Chechen mood in Moscow after the events at "Nord-Ost." Unfortunately, her clear and honest voice is drowned out by the lies, hatred and disinformation splashed across the pages of Russian newspapers, magazines and television screens today. That reflects the official Russian policy toward the Chechen Republic and toward Chechens in general.

Written by correspondents in Chechnya, Dispatches from Chechnya is distributed in English by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), a non-profit organization founded in 1986, dedicated to the promotion of democracy and pluralism in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For more information about IDEE, its programs, and the situation in Chechnya, visit the IDEE webpage at www.idee.org. To receive Dispatches by email, please contact IDEE at idee@idee.org

Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota
Co-Directors, IDEE