Sunday, April 23, 2006

Russian Reaction to Jamestown Conference Reveals Fear of Free Speech

Russian Reaction to Jamestown Conference Reveals Kremlin Fear of Free Speech About the Situation in the North Caucasus

Another interesting article from the Jamestown Foundation, via it's Eurasia Daily Monitory website. Andrei Smirnov writes about the Russian reaction, with a few interesting tidbits regarding the Russian presence at the meeting:
Two officials from the Russian Embassy to the United States attended the event as observers. They were accompanied by journalists from the Kremlin-controlled ORT television network. ORT broadcast a story about the event on the popular 9 pm news program that night. The panelists were surprised to learn from the ORT story that they had planned new terrorist acts in Russia during their discussion in Washington.

"The statements that are made in the USA imply that new, large-scale acts of terrorism in Russia are necessary," according to the ORT headline. "As a matter of fact, the presented subject of the event is ‘Perspectives of the New Nalchik.' These perspectives were treated with sympathy" (ORT, April 14).

The note of protest from the Russian Foreign Ministry likely had been prepared in advance so that Russian authorities were ready to condemn the discussion irrespective of its content. The ORT report about the conference was needed to provide grounds for a protest to the American ambassador. ORT and the Russian authorities likely had coordinated their actions.

Clearly, the Kremlin was enraged just by the title of the discussion: "Sadullaev's Caucasian Front." Unlike in the United States, where the government encourages public research on terrorism issues and open analysis of al-Qaeda statements and publications on websites belonging to Islamic radicals, in Russia such topics are the exclusive prerogative of the authorities.
It was pointed out by Sean Warner of Sturmovik earlier this week that a simple transcript would answer the question of what was (and wasn't) said at the conference. Mr. Warner has written to Jamestown requesting a copy of the transcript, but I believe this hasn't yet been forthcoming. However, neither has the Russian TV shows transcript of what was said at the event.

Andrei Smirnov further writes his opinions about what the Russian governments attitudes towards information and free speech:

The Kremlin is not interested in providing either Russian society or the international community with detailed information about the Caucasian insurgency. Instead, officials in Russia use vague terms like "international terrorism" or "dark forces" to describe the source of instability in the south of the country. Sometimes some "unknown Arabs" are mentioned, but never actual insurgency leaders such as Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev. Nor does official Moscow recognize the existence of the Caucasian front, preferring to speak about "the criminal underground in the North Caucasus."

The Russian authorities do not want to focus on Sadullaev, as his presence proves that the insurgency across the North Caucasus is directed from Chechnya by Chechen separatists, not by terrorists from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, as official propaganda claims. The authorities were even angrier about the fact that Vachagaev called Sadullaev the "Chechen president," trying to present the rebel leader as a legitimate figure in the eyes of the Americans. Since Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev succeeded Maskhadov after the latter's death last year, the Kremlin has used a number of devices to hide his name from the West, fearing that one day Western governments will start to persuade Moscow to initiate a dialogue with him. Previously they had called on Russia to negotiate with Maskhadov.

Russian authorities are also afraid of any accurate, thorough analyses of the situation in the North Caucasus. As it increasingly loses control over the region, Moscow has tried to make it off-limits to foreigners by deporting journalists and humanitarian-aid workers. Public discussions like the Jamestown forum on April 14 are considered as threatening to the Kremlin as independent, inquisitive journalists who try to enter the volatile region.
While I was in Russia for New Year's, I actually had a small conversation with Sergei about Chechnya (our language skills limited us). But we both agreed that perhaps Russia was better off to let Chechnya go, rather than continue to engage in conflict. The price is high for both Russians and Chechens, and neither really wants to be part of the other. Sergei seems rather practical and not particularly aggressive in terms of his politics, so other Russians might have strongly different views. However, Russians have no love of Chechens, seeing them as predominantly and historically criminals or "bandits". It seems it is just the Russian government which wishes to retain control of the region - with or without the Chechens who call it home.


Lyndon said...

Wally, I was at this conference, and I have to say that it was apparent to me during the discussion that someone who wanted to understand it in a particular way - as a bunch of anti-Russians pontificating on how to stir up violence in the Northern Caucasus - would have no trouble doing so. Even I was a bit put off by the total non-condemnation of the gunmen in Nal'chik and other perpetrators of armed violence. I understand there is some justification for fighting the authorities, but the tone made me a bit uncomfortable at times. Still, it was an interesting presentation. I have some notes, although no transcript. But I also have 4 finals in the next 2 weeks, so it's not likely I'll be posting about it in the near future.

W. Shedd said...

Yes, I don't for a second doubt that tone was expressed. I had written more about this earlier in the week as well and I certainly didn't doubt that there was some truth in how ORT portrayed some of the conferences content. In fact, I actually made some guesses where such comments were made.

However, we do allow free speech in this country, even when it permits people to express horrendous points of view. I realize the Russian government views such things being sponsored by NGOs as simply vehicles for the US government. I suspect they equate it to allowing non-government discussions by Al Qaeda in Moscow, with calls for further attacks upon the west.

Of course, one could make the case that Russian government talks and financing of Hamas are even a step beyond that. I don't think the US, Europe, or even Israel responded to the Hamas meetings with quite the venom that the Russian government did in response to the Jamestown conference.

Lyndon said...

The free speech right in the US is somewhat diminished nowadays (de facto, if not de jure) once you get within spitting distance of promoting terrorism, don't you think? As far as I can tell, holding a conference like this one in the US related to any non-Chechen Islamic militant group would be a good way to get slapped with some secret wiretaps. And it has to be said that Jamestown (as much as I respect their reporting and read it regularly) is actually a pretty good example of an NGO with fairly close ties to parts of the US gov't.

But in general, I think it's ridiculous for ORT to focus on something like this. It just shows how fixated some Russians (still) are on how they are viewed in America, and how preoccupied the Kremlin spinmeisters are with the Soviet-type task of creating the general sense among the population that there are enemies everywhere - within Russia and abroad.

To illustrate how silly it is for ORT to report on this, consider a scenario where a minor Russian-gov't-affiliated "NGO" holds a conference with some topic hostile to America - the only place you'll hear about it is on Johnson's List and a few blogs, and perhaps in McCain's next speech about Russia.

On the other hand, if some FSB-affiliated think tank held a conference in Moscow talking about "Al-Qaeda's next steps" or "Bin Laden's new front," don't you think there would be some consternation in the US? I don't think any of our main TV networks are in Moscow any more (though I may be wrong about that), but there's a possibility that CNN or NPR would cover such a hypothetical conference.

And I don't mean to compare AQ and the Chechen/N.Cauc "rebels," "secessionists," or whatever you want to call them, but the latter have been responsible for some pretty big terrorist attacks in Moscow, not to mention Beslan.

What the Russians don't realize (or maybe they do) is what a PR boost they gave Jamestown with all of the free coverage. Lashing out with unintended consequences seems to be a hallmark of the bunglers in Putin's PR shop. On the other hand (again), perhaps they don't care at all how their response to the conference was perceived outside of Russia and are focused only on generating hostility toward "American NGO's" within Russia.

Anyway, interesting as always to follow these issues, but for some reason I'm having a hard time getting worked up about them at the moment. Thanks for your outstanding coverage in general - stay on that wine war story, it is a huge deal for Moldova especially (MDA derived a much bigger portion of its GDP from wine exports to Russia than GA), although maybe now that they've banned Borjomi, the impact on Georgia will be equally as great.

W. Shedd said...

I think the government listening in or using wiretaps is a privacy issue, as opposed to impairing free speech. I think the government would have a tough time trying to shut down a meeting of US militia-types, ala Timothy McVeigh, if all they were doing is talking about how they didn't like the US government, government oppression, and the possible need for more Oklahoma city bombings.

All your other points are 100% valid, from my point of view.