West miscasts the Chechen war

April 25, 2000|By Vladimir Stepanov

MOSCOW — "Our son threw a rock at your child? Gosh, we're sorry, but, after all, he's just a child." "Your son threw a stone at our little boy? Why, that thug of yours is nothing more than a young criminal. We'll sue you."

-- How many Russian journalists feel about Western coverage of the war in Chechnya.

MOSCOW -- Those journalists in Russia today who still actually believe in and try to follow the principles associated with an "independent media" have become increasingly disappointed by what they view of the hypocritical coverage in the West of the war in Chechnya.

In a nation where the majority of media outlets are more or less obviously controlled by the state, this loss of faith by credible Russian reporters in those who advocate a free press is truly bad news.

Yet who can blame them? They've watched their Western colleagues write about "excessive use of force by the Russian army as it fights against the small but proud Chechen nation, striving for the right to build the life and society of its own."

They view these reports as one-sided, failing to tell the Western public what life was like in Chechnya for the previous eight years.

Few, if any, Western reports detailed how the Chechen economy had been virtually destroyed by those who usurped power in the republic after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was then, after all, when none other than Boris Yeltsin called upon the leaders of the various autonomous republics within Russia to grab as much sovereignty as they could hold. Some, like Chechnya's Djohar Dudayev, chose to take it all.

After that, industrial and agricultural output fell to zero. The education, health care and welfare systems were in ruins. Genocide against the non-Chechen population became rampant and the formerly multinational republic was practically monoethnic. The rulers of Chechnya gained fortunes by slave-trading, drug-smuggling, illegal and environmentally damaging oil-refining practices.

Criminals sought by the federal and international law-enforcement agencies felt quite at home in Chechnya. No less than $4 billion of counterfeited money was printed in Grozny, only to emerge later throughout Russia and other nearby states. Cars stolen in Russia and in other countries regularly turned up there -- at least 2,900 of them were found during the recent anti-terrorist operation. Chechnya became the site for numerous training bases for international terrorists.

Who could tolerate all that? And for how long?

The Kremlin's patience finally ran out after a series of barbaric terrorist acts in Moscow and other Russian towns, such as the bombings of apartment buildings, popularly, although not legally, attributed to Chechen fighters.

Then came the Chechen attack against its neighbor Dagestan last August.

This attack was seen in Moscow as a clear-cut challenge. The republic of Dagestan was invaded by well-organized and well-trained paramilitary organizations, equipped not only with small arms but also with artillery and missile launchers. The amount of force used by the Russian Army was publicly viewed as appro- priate given the nature of the threat.

Those Chechen refugees who had to abandon their homes in the combat zone fled toward the advancing federal troops, not away from them. No matter how desperate their situation, these civilians knew they would be safer in areas under the federal government's control rather than those ruled by the Chechen fighters. For thousands, it was their first chance since the collapse of the Soviet Union to visit a doctor and to send their children to school.

Most of these facts are ignored by those journalists who prefer to dwell on the federal troops' atrocities only.

Unfortunately, some of these journalists are equally selective in their reporting about their own colleagues. While the fate of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, reported missing in Chechnya until he was eventually freed by Russian forces, was widely reported, there was practically no mention of Vladimir Yatsina, a reporter for the ITAR-Tass Russian news agency who was kidnapped last July in Chechnya and reportedly was shot several weeks ago. Altogether, 24 journalists were killed in Chechnya during the previous and the current military campaigns.

"The one-sided approach of Western media to this drama is amazing," says Vassily Aksyonov, a well-known Russian writer now living in the United States. "You feel, especially if you have some Soviet-life experience, as if somewhere behind the scenes there is a covert propaganda center which coordinates this campaign and sends directives to independent newspapers. According to these `directives,' one shouldn't believe any information from Russian Army sources but, on the contrary, should unconditionally believe any information from `independent Chechen sources,' " he says.

Many in Russia feel the same way. They feel that many in the West have failed to obtain balanced information about what is going on in Chechnya. The feel as if they have been unfairly criticized. And they think that the Western media is to blame.

Vladimir Stepanov is a Moscow-based media expert who frequently writes about the Russian government's information policy. He wrote this for Knight-Ridder/Tribune.

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