Thursday, August 04, 2005

In their Moscow Times columns, Yulia Latynina and Masha Gessen comment on Andrei Babitsky/ABC's Nightline interview with Basayev and the hysterical reaction of the Russian authorities (thanks to David of A Step at a Time for the links).

Masha Gessen's piece - Like the Censors of Old - is informative though a bit too retrospective, while Latynina's reads like a manifesto and is really worth quoting in full:

Words Versus Body Counts

by Yulia Latynina

When the ABC program "Nightline" aired journalist Andrei Babitsky's interview with Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, it made Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov see red. The Defense Ministry has troops in Chechnya, including two military intelligence battalions: Zapad, which is under the command of Hero of Russia Said-Magomed Kakiyev, and Vostok, which is under the command of Hero of Russia Sulim Yamadayev. Yamadayev's men recently distinguished themselves in a violent raid on the peaceful civilian population in the village of Borozdinovskaya.

You would think that the defense minister would be out there pledging to nab Basayev as fast as possible so that he would stop giving interviews to journalists and start giving testimony to investigators. But no. Instead, the ministry's retribution promises to be far more terrifying. From now on, the U.S. channel's single Moscow journalist will be banned from all ministry briefings. This is it, folks. ABC will never recover from the blow.

The interview scandal has its roots in the peculiar nature of the Russian authorities. Those in power in Russia today are former KGB men. These chekists are running businesses, interfering in politics and tapping many a wire. But somehow they can't manage to keep track of Babitsky, who lives in Prague and has long been a thorn in their side.

The authorities had a chance to catch both Basayev and Doku Umarov, whom Babitsky has interviewed in the past. They had at their disposal the means to catch them if they didn't want them to talk to the press, such as the Vostok battalion or the FSB's elite Alfa unit. But just because the FSB can't seem to get the job done does not mean they should take it out on journalists.

An interview is not an act of terrorism. Terrorists do not use words to make their points; they use dead bodies. Basayev is a terrorist not because of what he says but because he kills people.

You can understand why the authorities reacted to the interview the way they did. They had to react somehow, and better to condemn its broadcasters than to discuss its content. For example, Basayev was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Anti-Terrorist" and said that Russian policies in Chechnya were terrorism, which makes him an anti-terrorist.

This might sound almost reasonable if it weren't for one small "but." Let's not forget that back in 1999, Chechnya was for all intents and purposes independent. Regardless of how terrible the war was before the Khasavyurt accord and no matter which side committed more atrocities, Chechnya had practically gained its freedom. There were no Russian troops, but only President Aslan Maskhadov and roadblocks manned by criminals who robbed passersby in the name of Allah. Basayev, like many a military leader in peacetime, was threatened with political oblivion.

When did Chechnya lose its hard-won freedom? When Basayev and his men attacked Dagestan. Some believe that this invasion was orchestrated by the Kremlin: It got Vladimir Putin the presidency and returned Basayev to the limelight. I would not go so far as to suggest a conspiracy. But at the very least Basayev sacrificed his homeland's freedom to satisfy his own ambitions.

A person who orders a sniper to take out a terrorist holding a detonator is just as responsible for the ensuing explosion as the people who planted the explosives to begin with. In much the same way, Basayev, by invading Dagestan, shares the blame for the second Chechen war with the Russian authorities.


Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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