AFTER BESLAN: NOTES ON THE COVERAGE (6)
The Valdai Discussion Club's website now has a compilation of articles published as the result of the Sept. 6 meeting with Putin. These so far include Susan B. Glasser's piece in The Washington Post; two of Jonathan Steele's Guardian stories that I have mentioned in the previous entries here; Fiona Hill's misleading op-ed in The New York Times that I've also examined a few days ago; two pieces by Mary Dejevsky of The Independent - one focusing on Putin's views on the situation in Chechnya, another providing a general overview of the meeting; a translation of Yevgenia M. Albats' exposé published in the Russian-language Yezhenedelny Zhurnal; and two analytical pieces by Simon Saradzhyan from The Moscow Times.
I've been planning to write about Yevgenia Albats text, but since it meant I'd have to translate extensively, I kept postponing it, out of laziness. I'm really glad that the hard part, the translation, has been done by someone else, Scott Stephens. I'm sure his translation is of a much higher quality than mine would have been - and I'm grateful to him.
I also feel that the Valdai Discussion Club folks deserve lots of credit for having re-published Albats' piece on their site; this is very courageous of them - because her piece, titled "The Kremlin Actively Recruits Western Experts to Improve Russia's Image," is very very critical of this whole endeavor and of the people who chose to participate in it.
Albats, a highly esteemed Russian journalist and member of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, tackles an issue that none of those who attended the conference and the meeting with Putin have so far chosen to focus much on: the money issue.
Money was not spared on improving Russia's image abroad.
"They paid for roundtrip business-class airfare, though we could only take Aeroflot. If I had wanted to take my wife they would have paid for her, too," said David Johnson of the Center for Defense Information, a bit perplexed by the Russians' generosity. Johnson puts together a summary of news and views about Russia from publications worldwide, sends it out daily by email to about 5,000 subscribers and also places the information on his Web site. Journalists and political scientists consider it an honor to be featured in his summaries: Johnson's reputation is impeccable.
Thus, the operation aimed at influencing Western public opinion about Russia was made according to a well-established Russian public relations rule: he who pays the piper calls the tune. According to a former deputy who spoke on condition of anonymity, there is a little known line item in the federal budget that provides for financing events that enhance Russia's image.
In total, 42 guests were invited to the conference. Airfare was paid for; accommodations were provided at the Metropol, where the cheapest room costs $300 a night. All other expenses, including travel to and accommodations in Veliky Novgorod, were covered by RIA Novosti; in other words, the state picked up the tab.
Several journalists were also in attendance. I was sure that they had covered their expenses themselves: the ethics codes of many Western publications specifically bar journalists from allowing information sources to even pay for lunch, let alone a $2,500 first-class airline ticket. As it turns out, I was wrong.
"It isn't corruption," Jonathan Steele said, responding to my question about who covered his costs at the conference. [...]
Steele said that corruption happens when substantial royalties are paid, but that covering journalists' expenses is quite common among English newspapers. "Sometimes we indicate at the end of an article that expenses associated with its preparation were paid for [by someone besides the paper]," he said.
None of Steele's reports from Moscow, however, refers to the Russian government covering his expenses. True, he mentions in one report that the Russian president held a meeting with Western scholars and journalists who were attending a "special conference." But he does not disclose the fact that the aim of the conference was to enhance Russia's image abroad.
Comments provided to Albats by Mary Dejevsky of The Independent are quite telling, too:
Mary Dejevsky of the Independent, a British daily, had her own reasons for accepting the conference organizers' invitation and payment of her expenses. In a telephone interview, she said her paper weighs the importance of gaining access to representatives of foreign governments, and depending on that, such an invitation is accepted or rejected.
She said that if she had decided not to attend the conference, she would not have been able to tell her readers about this meeting with President Putin. [...]
"But what kept your paper from covering the expenses associated with getting such important information for your readers," I asked. Dejevsky said that while some organizations such as the BBC operated that way, her paper had a different policy. If she had refused to accept the offer, she might not have obtained access to such high-ranking Russian officials, she said.
However, there was indeed a non-free way to get access to Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials, according to Albats:
American television journalist Eileen O'Connor, who for many years headed CNN's Moscow bureau, also attended the conference, also was present at the meetings with Putin and Ivanov, and also was offered to have her expenses taken care of by conference organizers. O'connor turned down the offer. She informed the organizers that she would pay for both her flight and hotel expenses. O'Connor had come to Russia not as a news correspondent, but president of the nonprofit International Center for Journalists.
Obviously, Albats did not attend the conference and the meeting with Putin; allowing her in might have proved as detrimental to Russia's image as inviting Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken Russian journalist who, allegedly, was poisoned on her way to Beslan, and thus prevented from covering the tragedy. According to Dejevsky, though, the real reason for leaving many of the local journalists out had to do with - ironically - money:
Responding to another question, Dejevsky explained that the reason Russian journalists were not invited to attend the meetings with Putin and Ivanov was due to the fact that Russian politicians "trust western reports more than they do the Russian press." She told me that the Russian press was extremely corrupt, was always writing stories for money, and that such practices could not be found anywhere among Western newspapers.
After I read Albats' piece, I was very curious about Dejevsky's post-Sept. 6 reports. But here the money issue struck again: I was too late to catch her stories while they were still available for free reading online. I looked for them on The Independent site, about a week ago, and the cheapest option for me was to pay "£1 for 24 hours' access to this article" - but I don't have a credit card and, even if I did, it'd still be such a waste, for why on earth would I need 24 hours to read a newspaper story? (The Valdai Discussion Club site has reprinted Dejevsky's stories not from The Independent but from The Belfast Telegraph - and this paper's options are significantly cheaper: they are asking just "50p for 24 hours' access to this article.")
In any case, I'm grateful to the Valdai Discussion Club people for giving me a chance to read two of Dejevsky's stories free of charge. One important thing that I've found out is that Putin didn't say he was prepared to violate the Russian Constitution in order to grant "maximum autonomy" to Chechnya, as Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution wanted everyone to believe.
Here's what Dejevsky wrote on the issue in her first piece (Sept. 7):
In an unexpected change of tone, however, Vladimir Putin also held out the prospect of a more conciliatory line towards Chechnya, praising Chechen traditions and suggesting there was a possibility of broad-based parliamentary elections there. [...]
Seeming to extend an olive branch to a much broader swath of Chechen opinion than hitherto, Mr Putin said: "We will continue our dialogue with civil society. This will include holding parliamentary elections, trying to get as many people as possible involved, with as many views and policies as possible.' One of the big criticisms of Russia's policy in Chechnya is that it has held presidential elections from which the more popular opposition figures have been excluded, but delayed parliamentary elections.
Mr Putin gave a clear indication that he was open to the holding of parliamentary elections in Chechnya - although he did not give a date - in the hope of drawing many more people into the political process. He also said that the intention was to "strengthen law enforcement by staffing the police and other bodies in Chechnya with Chechens'.
The two moves together would amount to the continuation, even acceleration, of the policy of "Chechenisation', which some believed would be reversed after the spate of recent attacks in Russia: the downing of two planes, a bomb near a Moscow underground station, and, last week, the siege of School Number One in Beslan that cost more than 300 lives. [...]
In a little-noticed move two weeks before the attacks, the Russian government had decreed that Chechnya should be able to keep revenue from its oil, rather than remit the proceeds to Russia as currently happens. This was a major change in policy and one that irritated other regions that do not enjoy a similar right.
Mr Putin insisted, however, that Russia would retain troops in Chechnya. Their withdrawal is one of the separatists' main objectives. Russia had as much right to keep troops in the region as the US has to station its troops "in California or Texas', he said.
While I find this oil revenue initiative interesting and will definitely look for more information on it, I still don't understand how all this endless talk about parliamentary election in Chechnya could be considered "an unexpected change of tone." And does Putin only "seem" to "extend an olive branch" - and if yes, how could it possibly be considered "a clear indication that he was open to the holding of parliamentary elections in Chechnya"? (Though I have to admit that, no matter how subjective Dejevsky's conclusions are, they are almost timid compared to the assertions Fiona Hill has made in her New York Times op-ed.)
In her Sept. 8 piece - "Evening of Surprises With a Hospitable President" - Dejevsky writes in great detail about the idyllic atmosphere of Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence and his great personal charm. All of this is, of course, sickeningly irrelevant to what had happened in Beslan just five days earlier. Actually, it's so sickening that I won't quote any of it here - I've provided the link to this piece at the beginning of this entry.
As for the confirmation of Fiona Hill's "maximum autonomy" comment - I haven't found it here, either. As in other sources, all Putin is quoted saying is this:
On inter-ethnic disputes and criticism of Russia's Chechnya policy he retorted: "No one can accuse us of not being flexible in our dealings with the Chechen people. In 1995, we granted them de facto autonomy, but what happened was complete chaos, unbelievable violence. [...]"
The Independent ran another post-Sept. 6 piece, which hasn't yet been posted on the Valdai Discussion Club site but is still somehow available free of charge: "Eyeball to Eyeball With Vladimir Putin" by John Kampfner, political editor of the New Statesman. In it, Kampfner treats Putin the way all presidents deserve to be treated: as politicians. This is the attitude that won't make Kampfner blush in the future:
My extraordinary encounter with the Russian President on Monday night, as part of a group of mainly foreign academics, provided an insight, however fleeting, into the psychology of a president in whose name systematic human rights abuses have been committed.
The question that needs answering is not whether Putin is an evil man wilfully destroying Chechnya. It is not whether the depraved mass murder of children in Beslan was the result of his policies towards the Caucasus or simply a dreadful extension of global terror. The only useful question is, what do we do about it? [...]
So can anyone influence Putin, and, if so, how? The impression I came away with after listening to him for so long was ... possibly. The negatives were abundantly clear. He will not withdraw Russian troops. He will not negotiate with Chechen political leaders, whom he calls "child-killers". He is possessed of a Soviet-era conspiracy that certain forces in the West are helping the Chechens in order to destabilise Russia. He seems unapologetic in his persecution of journalists who seek to "undermine" the stability of the state.
Each statement was icily but eloquently delivered. [...]
This all sounds good. It's funny, though that the very next thing Kampfner chooses to allude to is, possibly, Yevgenia Albats' piece:
Some Russian journalists wrote afterwards that we Westerners had been picked out because we might be more gullible. Anyone who looks back at the reporting of Mary Dejevsky, Jonathan Steele or myself during Soviet times might think again. One does not have to enjoy being with Putin or agree with him to try to understand him.
This is a good point, gracefully delivered, and, moreover, it doesn't contradict what Albats wrote about Mary Dejevsky: "...I cannot help mentioning that in contrast to Mary Dejevsky the reporter, Mary Dejevsky the columnist does not at all hide her sympathy for Russia's current leadership."
Kampfner's conclusions appear quite solid at first:
Putin will eventually be forced to negotiate with the Chechens - all wars end that way. But it would be impossible for him to proceed soon, even if he wanted to, after such an attack. No world leader would do that. This is a man who is evidently not exercised by questions of democracy or human rights. What seems to matter to him personally, and the issue on which he has twice based his electoral appeal, is security. Putin has to be convinced that Russia's stability is jeopardised, not enhanced, by continuing the war. He has to be convinced that the West has no interest in seeing Russia weakened. He has to be shown that international mediation - most likely through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe - will not be a humiliation. In a sense we may have to go back to the 1980s, to the era of detente and constructive engagement. Unlike that period, however, Russia is much more of a danger to itself and to its outlying regions than it is to us. We need to be wary but ready to become involved, rather than shouting from the rooftops.
Nothing will be gained from indulging Putin or denouncing him. The only possible chance we have in this desperate situation will come from steady, measured but incessant pressure.
Kampfner is not "shouting from the rooftops" - but, unfortunately, he seems to be viewing the situation in Russia from as high up as a rooftop. If Beslan, and the Nord-Ost theater siege, and the numerous deadly explosions haven't been convincing enough, what else has to happen that would force Putin to reconsider some of his policies? On the other hand, there's a very sobering element in Kampfner's argument: if Russia is more dangerous to itself than it is to the West (which it sure is), then why does the West have to bother too much about getting involved? Even if we take the scary "domino effect" factor into account, isn't it more reasonable for the Russian citizens (including the Chechens and their neighbors) to try to get more involved first?