Before I move on to the more serious stuff, here's a little something that made me laugh while I was researching for the piece below:
- It looks like Democracy Now!, a daily radio and TV news program, employs a transcriber who knows very little about Chechnya (which is not too surprising - nor is it too bad in any way). He/she wrote this in the "rush transcript" of one of Amy Goodman's programs:
AMY GOODMAN: Has it been discovered yet exactly who the people are who did this?
SCOTT PETERSON [The Christian Science Monitor correspondent who wrote the piece I'm referring to at the very beginning of the serious part of this entry as well as in one of the previous entries; speaking on the phone from Beslan]: No. The authorities, even if they know, have not really been that specific yet. So, we're waiting to hear about that. It's not clear that we will ever know because Russia is not really known for its openness on this kind of issue. But certainly we have - I mean from the hostage survivors, I mean, they indicate that people - Chechnyan and English people took part. Hostages that I spoke to said that they didn't see any foreigners; but anyway, I think that the truth really remains to be seen.
Of course, Mr. Peterson said "Ingush" - not "English"... Though, if you think about it, they do sound alike...
- On the same show, the following exchange took place between Amy Goodman and her next guest, Mary Dejevsky of The Independent, who had attended the meeting with Putin on Sept. 6 (the serious part of this entry is more or less about that meeting):
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking with Mary Dejevsky who was with President Putin last night. Can you talk about the scene where he slammed on the table?
MARY DEJEVSKY: I'm sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the scene where President Putin last night, where he slammed on the table, expressing anger?
MARY DEJEVSKY: Yes. I wouldn't say he slammed on it. He clenched his fists. He didn't pound them on the table. He was much more controlled than that [...]
I love the ambiguity of it.
On to the more serious stuff...
Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was quoted in The Christian Science Monitor's Sept. 10 story saying Putin had "offered [Chechnya] 'maximum autonomy, even to the point of violating the Russian constitution,'" had her own op-ed piece published in The New York Times on the same day:
On Monday, against the backdrop of the terrorist attack in Beslan, President Vladimir Putin of Russia held a remarkable four-hour discussion with a small group of American and Western European journalists and analysts at his official residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow. The meeting had been scheduled as part of a two-day conference on Russian-Western relations, but given the unfolding horrors at School No. 1, we were certain it would be canceled. Instead, President Putin turned it into a very personal exercise in public diplomacy.
In the article, titled "Stop Blaming Putin and Start Helping Him," Ms. Hill stated that "[c]learly, he was sending a message that he needs the United States and Europe to pay careful attention as he responds to the massacre." She also repeated what she had told The Christian Science Monitor:
President Putin told us that he was prepared to offer a great deal of autonomy to Chechnya, even to the point of "violating the Russian Constitution." This is something that he has resisted for some time, despite heavy pressure from some of his advisers and international opinion.
Shortly after Ms. Hill had made her observations public, Putin ordered major electoral changes, which were criticized by some and praised by others. These changes appear to be the opposite of what Ms. Hill claimed he had been "prepared" to do.
I've examined a few other accounts of Putin's Sept. 6 meeting with Western analysts and journalists, to see if any carried confirmation of Ms. Hill's optimistic claims. So far, I haven't succeeded.
David Johnson posted his notes on Johnson's Russia List (JRL, a superb resource on Russia, updated regularly by Mr. Johnson). He wrote that the meeting "was planned some time before the recent terror events in Russia and was a direct follow-on to the Valdai Discussion Club conference held September 3-4 in Veliky Novgorod. The conference was organized primarily by RIA Novosti and the [Russian] Council on Foreign and Defense Policy." Mr. Johnson's feeling is that "Putin was not thinking of the event as a press conference. It was more of a thoughtful discussion with long-time Russia-watchers, not a news-generating event." Hence, the sketchiness of his notes and this warning: "I would suggest that nothing here is worthy of further quotation. It's more useful in giving an impression of what was said than as an accurate record of details. ACTUALLY: DON'T QUOTE FROM THIS!"
I'll quote just one tiny thing: the following summary of Putin's words - "The Chechen constitution provides an enormous amount of autonomy." - refers to the constitution adopted as the result of a March 2003 referendum in Chechnya, not to anything intended in the near future.
The Guardian's Jonathan Steele also did not write anything that would confirm Ms. Hill's claim - neither in his partial notes from the meeting posted on JRL, nor in his Guardian pieces of Sept. 7 and Sept. 8.
In his Sept. 7 story, "Angry Putin Rejects Public Beslan Inquiry," Mr. Steele reported Putin's interest in finding a political solution to the situation in Chechnya:
[Russia is] going to hold elections to a Chechen parliament there shortly "and we will try to attract as many people as possible with different views to take part".
"We will strengthen law enforcement by staffing the police with Chechens, and gradually withdraw our troops to barracks, and leave as small a contingent as we feel necessary, just like the US does in California and Texas," [Putin] said.
He could not agree that a war was still going on there five years after he first sent in troops. "It is a smouldering conflict. There have been attacks but not like the big operations of 1999," he said.
But holding parliamentary elections in Chechnya is in complete accordance with the constitutions of both Chechnya and the Russian Federation. Also, there is nothing new/newsworthy in the fact that Putin says the election is going to take place - he has been reported to imply it in 2003, prior to the referendum ("'A constitution accepted by its people would become a basis for a political settlement in Chechnya, allowing them choose truly democratic authorities that would rely on popular trust,' Putin said, stressing that the republic would not be allowed to secede."), and he also mentioned it as recently as August 16, 2004 ("Russian President Vladimir Putin has said there is a need to hold parliamentary elections in Chechnya as soon as possible after the presidential elections.").
(On a different note, "angry Putin" calmed down a bit and, four days later, announced that a parliamentary inquiry would be conducted by the Federation Council, the upper house of the Parliament, whose members are not elected but appointed by the 89 federal subjects. But if you think there's much discussion here on where this inquiry might possibly lead and what horrible truths it would likely uncover - no, there's almost none, everyone's busy talking about Putin's undemocratic reorganization plans.)
Mr. Steele's Sept. 8 article, "Candid Putin Offers Praise and Blame," cast more doubt on the accuracy of Ms. Hill's remark: Putin, angry yesterday but candid today, "made it clear beyond doubt that he had not changed his policy on Chechnya after Beslan."
On JRL, in a note that precedes the transctipt of Putin's answers, Mr. Steele pointed out two things that made me suspect that neither Ms. Hill nor Putin were actually lying. Mr. Steele wrote that he "was the only person in the group who was taping the meeting" and, moreover, he "had only budgeted for a 90-minute meeting, and did not have enough tape for the entire encounter" (halfway through the transcript, this note was inserted: "Tape was changed over to the other side here, and a few sentences were lost"). Further, Mr. Steele wrote that the interpreter's "English was not perfect" - which is exactly what I was thinking a few days before: that they had a lousy translator!
So it is possible that Ms. Hill could have assumed that she heard something that hadn't actually been said - and I don't blame her for that. She didn't have a chance to correct her mistake because Mr. Steele was the only one with a tape recorder there - and since he ran out of tape, the part of Putin's speech that so confused Ms. Hill might have been missing.
But then she reported it all, and based much of her argument on the assumption that Putin was prepared to violate the Russian Constitution in order to give Chechnya broader autonomy - and The New York Times published Ms. Hill's op-ed piece without checking the facts first.
I wonder if they have posted a correction yet. Maybe they will. I hope someone will let me know if I miss it.