And Russia is a dangerous place

By Serguei Grigoriants | 2000-01-01 12:00:00

Every day we Russians hear official propaganda promoting "the struggle against terrorism." Nobody dares to contradict it, but it is not convincing. The Russian authorities evidently are pursuing a different goal than a struggle against terrorism.

The first war in Chechnya started when Russian troops leaving Chechnya "accidentally" forgot large stocks of armament there. In reality they were designated to be transferred to nearby Georgia to overthrow Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who had refused to sign the union treaty. Then came the stage of the "establishment of the constitutional order" in Chechnya. Dudaev tried in vain to start the negotiations with Moscow. He was ready to renounce his previous claims and declarations, but nobody wanted to listen to him. The goal of the war was the war itself. The Russian government needed to prove that the country was in strong hands whose priority was to preserve the integrity of Russia rather than dissolve it. That was the real reason for the first Chechen war.

Today the declared goal of war is the struggle against terrorism. At the beginning small armed groups headed by Basaev and Khattab (open enemies of President Maskhadov) penetrated-without any obstacle-the frontier in different places, in sight of the Russian troops. They were allowed to attack Dagestan villages (even the Russian mass media carried the news from the region) and to return to Chechnya. Perhaps the Russian military leaders did not intend to let Basaev's and Khattab's armed groups escape. Anyway, the first Russian bombing of the peaceful population forced Maskhadov to prepare for struggle against the terrorists of Basaev and Khattab. Even if the Russian authorities do not believe Maskhadov, they lost an opportunity to divide their adversaries and get even with them both. But the Russian authorities ignored Maskhadov's appeals, after making sure that the population of Russia would not hear about them. Instead they beseiged Chechnya, forcing the whole Chechen population to fight. As a result, the groups of Basaev and Khattab, which had numbered no more then 10,000, grew into an army of 70,000.

Moreover, though emphasizing the dangers of terrorism and Muslin extremism, the Russian authorities have actually drawn the attention of Muslim fanatics around the world to the problems of Chechnya, making it easier to collect money for the Chechen extremists. Russian authorities provoke anti-Russian sentiments abroad by demonstrating our country's isolation from the humanitarian catastrophe in Chechnya. This has nothing to do with the fight against international terrorism, which in practice it is actually reinforcing. The decision makers must have consciously undertaken such a risk in order to achieve other goals. But what are those goals?

Well before he became president at the New Year, Vladimir Putin said that Russia would lose the whole Caucasus if she did not reinforce its presence in Chechnya. Probably this time the real goal was not the Caucasus, but something more important to Russia than the Caucasus: Russia itself. Sometimes politicians express this idea. Yeltsin named Putin as his successor, giving him carte blanche for a victorious war in Chechnya, which boosted his rating and perhaps ensured his victory in the presidential elections three months away.

"My first task is to strengthen our State," says Vladimir Putin. Some do not believe him, considering that he, as all Russian leaders before him, is not very scrupulous in choosing his means of approaching power. I believe him. His logic has been tested thousands of times: a military regime is the best way to keep power; and the best way to establish it is by a war against an unknown enemy that is mysterious to most of the population, so that at any moment you can announce a great victory or unpredicted military failure.

The head of the Russian Army Headquarters spent three years preparing the army for revenge in Chechnya. Just when it was ready, Basaev's troops attacked Dagestan and apartment buildings were exploded in Moscow. Secret negotiations between [Russian magnate] Boris Berezovsky and Shamil Basaev were recently published, describing Basaev's group's intervention into Dagestan villages. One has to question any shocking stories appearing in our press. However, those explosions were not profitable for terrorists, which raises embarrassing questions. Without the Dagestan events and the explosions in Russian cities the national support for President Putin would be weaker and generals would lack a plausible excuse for revenge. If this war is not a goal but a means, it need not be victorious, but only has to be well covered in media.

Total Control Of The Mass Media

We witness almost total control of the mass media by Putin and Berezovsky. The newspapers for intellectuals with their limited editions were not touched for the moment, but influential TV channels and radio stations covering the whole country are now controlled. Berezovsky bought TV-6 and Putin forced the closure of TV News Service, which had formed the base of independent information on TV-6. For the moment, they have not suppressed Lujkov and Primakov and their TV Center, but it seems that Evgenie Primakov, though already humiliated, will be made to present himself for the forthcoming presidential elections, in order to simulate a democratic image.

All the State TV channels, radio stations, magazines, and newspapers, as well as all the mass media belonging to Boris Berezovsky, are the subject of severe censorship over the situation in the Caucasus; the overall situation in Russia; the Western attitude to present Russian policy; and many other subjects. The Russian media are full of anti-Western propaganda, and you can learn of critical western analysis only from negative commentaries of Russian journalists. The Russian Ministry of Communications has proposed censorship of Internet, as if to prevent pornography. It will be likely accepted by the State Duma but will be difficult to execute in practice. To open a web site one will have to obtain permission.

If the mass media could be fully controlled, the war could be manipulated in the minds of Russians, and the media could be charged with new tasks, such as the patriotic education of the population to support the army and the government. But consolidation usually means consolidation against something-the enemy. And the enemy is the West, which intends to divide Russia and humiliate its people. Of course, the Muslims are also enemies, along with all others of "Caucasus nationality."

Other "internal enemies" are non-governmental organizations. Half the Russian public organizations were not re-registered this year by the Justice Department. Non-governmental organizations are oppressed selectively-especially human rights and ecological organizations. (They are paid by western special services to destroy Russia and throw it into foreign slavery.) Russian ecologists are accused of espionage; Russian human rights activists are blamed for lacking patriotism.

The state-controlled mass media show "good" generals opening new schools, giving Chechens electricity and gas, and giving food to refugees. The refugees are "supplied" by the troops, for otherwise there would be practically none.

We are witnessing the creation of a military and police state with Berezovsky, Putin, and Shoygu at its head, with a nationalistic ideology that will oppose the Western democracies. The development of such regime is supported, as it was in 1917 in Russia and in 1933 in Germany, by a population which does not realize that it means permanent wars, misery, lack of food and clothes, political camps, and isolation from the whole world.

To prevent the reestablishment of dictatorship it is essential to stop the war in Chechnya which is the "cultural medium" for the military and police regime. The cessation of the war could be achieved on the following bases:

If the Chechen war continues it will open the possibilities for severe control of social and economic life, strict censorship and military and police despotism. Then the world community will revise its attitude towards Russia. Lack of information will create a demand, as in the Soviet times, for foreign radio stations-"Freedom," "BBC," "German Wave," and others. Create now, while there is still an opportunity, TV satellite channels on the Internet in Russian.

Boris Berezovsky should be denounced as international criminal with all the consequences of such decision. He may be more dangerous then Osama bin Laden; he inspired Basaev's crimes, he arranged the war propaganda campaign on his two TV channels. His TV propaganda campaign is particularly dangerous, with its promotion of a military and totalitarian regime in Russia; he openly leads nationalistic propaganda.

At the moment we still have a chance to prevent these situations but we need to consolidate our efforts inside and outside the country. Fortunately, Mr. Putin's plans are facing resistance and Berezovsky has enemies who stimulate investigations concerning Russian money in Switzerland and the Aeroflot case in Russia. Vladimir Putin has adversaries in the army and in the secret services, and some in the Kremlin. Even foreign correspondents now in Chechnya create an obstacle to Putin's vital plans for a total information monopoly. The support that President Clinton gave Yeltsin in Istanbul did not allow the expected rupture between Russia and Western countries.

For a while, none of our prominent politicians dare to oppose this emerging "new power" with its appetites for undivided rule. All of them seem hypnotized by the growing popularity of Putin and by the ordinary people's thirst for revenge.

Are we capable of defending the small gains for which we paid highly over the last ten years? If we lose all this, in the near future the Russian population can again feel hunger and form endless queues to buy flour or herrings. This gloomy future is really close.

Mr. Grigoriants, a dissident activist in Soviet days, now is director of The Glasnost Foundation in Moscow. Tel/fax: 7(095) 299 85 38 E-mail:

Peace Magazine Winter 2000

Peace Magazine Winter 2000, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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