BACKGROUND: Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty is planning to launch its North Caucasus service, including controversial broadcasting in the Chechen language, on April 3. The newest radio service was scheduled to go on the air in the Chechen, Avar, Circassian and Russian languages on February 28 of this year, but at the last moment Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, the second highest ranking U.S. Department of State official, had pulled the plug. Armitage intervened with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which ordered the Radios to postpone the broadcasts, and to cover the region through its Russian service. BBG is a body appointed by the President of the United States, which supervises the U.S. international radio broadcasters, such as Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America. Radio Liberty is funded by the U.S. Congress and is nominally independent from the executive branch of the U.S. Government. The North Caucasus service was mandated by the U.S. Congress, the Radios' funder, in 2000, and then-Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina) led the charge for its creation. Russian officials viewed the genesis of the service in conspiratorial terms. They suggested that Helms's staff member for Russia Ian Brzezinski, spearheaded the effort together with Paul Goble, then-Director of Public Affairs at Radio Liberty. The two are supporters of the Chechen independence, the Russian officials alleged. Mr. Goble is currently a senior executive with The Voice of America. The North Caucasus broadcasts will be conducted from the Radios HQ in Prague, and will last 15 minutes in each of the four languages. According to Andrey Sharyi, the Moscow bureau chief of Radio Liberty, the Chechen and other broadcasts for North Caucasus will be separate and independent from the Russian service, which uses AM and FM frequencies in Russia. Mr. Sharyi refuted accusations that Radio Liberty supports the separatists: "The position of the Russian service on the Chechnya war has always been the same: calls for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, defense of human rights and [coverage of] humanitarian issues. There will be no changes in our position," Sharyi said.
IMPLICATIONS: Russia has long seen Radio Liberty broadcasts in Chechen as a direct affront. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reportedly spent half an hour complaining to Colin Powell about the pending broadcasts in January. The Kremlin Administration reportedly threatened to pull Radio Liberty AM/FM broadcasts off the air and shut down the Moscow bureau. While Yastrezhembsky later denied media reports and limited himself to a promise to monitor the broadcasts "in accordance with the law," Minister of the Press Mikhail Lesin warned that the U.S. radios' actions are "improper." Lesin said that his ministry will "address the situation from the position of information security" and added that Russian legislation on incitement to ethnic conflict "should be observed, and that measures will be taken if laws are broken." Vremya Novostei, a Moscow weekly with ties to the Kremlin, compared the Chechen broadcasting to Radio Liberty's Radio Free Iraq and the Farsi Service, which broadcasts to Iran. The weekly pointed out that the broadcasts are calling for regime change in these countries. Radio Liberty Russian broadcasters, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed concern that the Government of Russia may actually shut down their large Moscow bureau and deny access to the coveted AM and FM frequencies. "No one listens to short wave any longer," they said, referring to the World War Two technology which was is still used to beam U.S. international broadcasting around the world. "And it is not clear how the station management will monitor broadcasts in rare languages, such as the Chechen, which very few Americans know." The issue of editorial control will be crucial to keep the broadcasts from becoming a major friction point in the U.S.-Russian relations.
CONCLUSION: At the time of the delay, the U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated on the record that broadcasting would be counterproductive in the campaign against terrorism and because of the talks between the Russians and Chechens. What has changed? A Radio Liberty memo and State Department sources agree that factors as diverse as the Republican Party strategy to win 2004 presidential elections, and the lobbying power of the U.S. poultry industry had played a role in changing the mind of Mr. Armitage. To win the crucial, mostly blue-collar states of West Virginia and Pennsylvania in 2002 Congressional and 2004 presidential elections, Republicans needed to protect the shaky steel industry there. Thus the imposition of steel import tariffs earlier this month, that would hit Russian exports of steel to the U.S. In retaliation, on March 10, the Russians limited imports of American chicken legs, since the late 1980s colloquially referred to as "Bush's legs," after the current president's father, George H.W. Bush. And Tyson's Chicken, the U.S. poultry giant, weighed in with its considerable Washington lobbying power, to send a message to the Russians on the necessity of chicken imports. Last but not least, the Congress, protective of its prerogatives to fund foreign policy priorities, insisted that the Radios' North Caucasus service must go ahead, thus rejecting the earlier State Department position postponing the broadcasts indefinitely. In February, the U.S. Senate launched a bipartisan initiative spearheaded by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota), and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Missouri), seeking the adoption of a resolution on Chechnya which would require President Bush to pressure Russia for a negotiated settlement. In the end, all these factors led to the U.S. reversal on Chechen broadcasting.
AUTHOR BIO: Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis", (Praeger/Greenwood, 1998).
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved