#8 - JRL 7008
Wall Street Journal
January 8, 2003
Putin's Other Chechen Campaign
By CYNTHIA SCHARF
Ms. Scharf, a former Moscow-based journalist, now resides in London.
Days after Russia's worst-ever suicide bomb attack, which killed 80 people in the heart of Grozny, Russian President Vladimir Putin rang in the New Year with the cheery observation that his country was "meeting its future properly." His comments were not intended to be ironic.
Neither, for that matter, was the Russian daily Izvestia's headline in October proclaiming the Moscow hostage-taking crisis as Russia's "moment of truth." But three months after that lamentable event, truth about the blood-stained catastrophe that is Chechnya remains one of the last things the Russian public is likely to hear from its leaders -- or its media. Instead, Russian authorities have intensified their efforts to control what journalists report about the war.
Truth, of course, was one of the first casualties of the separatist conflict in the Caucasus. Three years of hideous carnage have been publicly whitewashed by Russian authorities that have at best ignored and at worst supported the acts of murder, torture, kidnapping and brutality inflicted upon Chechen civilians by Russian forces. While President Putin is undoubtedly aware of these egregious abuses, the Kremlin has done its utmost to pressure and intimidate journalists from reporting them. The result is a whitewashed portrayal of the Chechen conflict that has left Russian readers with little sense of the war's true costs -- in casualties, manpower, resources, military morale, and last but not least, national conscience.
Unfortunately, Mr. Putin has not used the October attack as an opportunity to learn from the wrongs of the past. Instead, he seems ever-more determined to add to them. To date, the Russian president has vilified and ostracized the moderate Chechen leadership (including elected president Aslan Maskhadov); forcibly evicted Chechen families from refugee camps in Ingushetia; stepped up zachistki or violent mopping-up operations against civilians in Chechnya; and clamped down still further on the Russian media. Taken together, these actions demonstrate that Russia's "moment of truth" has been hijacked by a president intent on perpetuating the Kremlin's lies about this war.
Given Chechnya's centrality to Mr. Putin's political future, coverage of the war is a matter of vital concern to the Russian president. Until recently, Russian authorities have shied away from legal means of controlling the media. Instead, they have employed a variety of carrots (selective favoritism and/or state funding) and sticks (financial pressure, management reshufflings, specious visits from the FSB, personal harassment) to exert the Kremlin's authority. Of course, there are also more overt means of pressure, including arrest, kidnapping, violence and death threats, which have been used against several Russian journalists -- including Anna Politkovskaya, Grigory Pasko and Andrei Babitsky.
Over the last three years, Russian security forces have made Chechnya -- and now its neighbor Ingushetia -- walled-off ghettos, sealed from the eyes and ears of all but a few score of journalists whose movements inside the province are controlled assiduously. Journalists are routinely denied entry to Chechnya if their reports are deemed critical of Russian forces. Countless bureaucratic restrictions (including mandatory military escorts) are imposed on the movements of those who manage to report from inside Chechnya.
Journalists, including foreign reporters, have been detained, interrogated, physically threatened and expelled from the area by security forces for refusing to comply with the Russian authorities' "see-no-evil, hear-no evil" guidelines. According to Andrei Babitsky, most Russian print journalists and nearly all of the broadcast media practice a "fairly rigorous degree of self-censorship."
But Mr. Putin is a shrewd politician, and he is under some international pressure -- albeit wincingly feeble and opportunistically applied -- to respond to accusations of Russian abuses in Chechnya. To maintain his carefully constructed image as a liberal in Western eyes, the Russian president knows he cannot appear too heavy-handed in stifling democratic institutions, including the press.
Mr. Putin's recent veto of amendments to Russia's law on the media is a clear example of his strategy to stifle criticism of the war effort while appearing publicly to be a defender of press freedom. These amendments, passed in near unanimous zeal by the parliament after the hostage crisis, banned any reporting that served as propaganda for extremist activities or provides justification for resisting antiterrorist operations.
Instead, the Russian president has proposed that lawmakers make another, less heavy-handed effort to amend the country's decade-old media law, this time with journalists' active assistance. It remains to be seen whether this calculated fifth-column strategy to co-opt journalists into emasculating their own independence will succeed.
Of course, those who have suffered most from the Kremlin's campaign to stifle the truth are the Chechen people themselves, whose suffering has been an unending nightmare of Dantian proportions. As Mr. Babitsky has noted, the Kremlin led campaign to silence reporting on Chechnya many times has enabled the Russian military operate in a climate of lawlessness, with no legal accountability for the ongoing crimes committed by its forces against civilians.
Mr. Putin knows all too well that without public information, without witnesses, there is no possibility of accountability, and no end in sight to the bloodshed. In perpetuating the mixture of denials and lies that feed this war, Mr. Putin is leading his country up a blind alley. Moreover, he is jeopardizing the security of all its citizens -- Russians and Chechens alike.
In the end, there are no victors in this war, for the crimes committed in Chechnya serve to dehumanize both societies. In confronting Chechnya, Russia is looking into a mirror, darkly, for it is battling with itself and the legacy wrought by its terror and brutality. Mr. Putin wishes to deny the consequences of this truth. In so doing, he is compromising not only his country security, but also its conscience.