Plans to Dissolve RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service: Helping Putin Russify Non-Russians Hurts America
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 90
Editor’s Note: The following is a special commentary on a largely overlooked issue with important implications for minority rights in Russia as well as US national interests.
Changes in the top management of the United States’ international broadcasting services over the last several weeks have attracted enormous attention and criticism from various quarters. But one change, taken before these developments, may be equally consequential and deleterious to the interests of the peoples that US broadcasting is directed at as well as to the national interests of the United States itself. At issue are reports that the management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) plans to fold the North Caucasus Service and, perhaps worst of all, to transfer its journalists to the Russian Service, actions that will make only two people happy: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov.
For the two decades he has been in power, Putin has shown various levels of antagonism to the Russian Federation’s non-Russian nationalities, beginning with a war against Chechnya at the dawn of his rule, continuing with efforts to destroy the non-Russian republics, as well as undermining their languages and cultures to render them, at best, a folkloric echo of what the Kremlin leader deems “unique” and superior Russian culture (see EDM, January 21, June 16). And Kadyrov, who serves as Putin’s local enforcer while allowing the man in the Kremlin a certain “plausible deniability,” has created a brutal police state in Chechnya, killing many of his opponents there and in Europe and threatening still more into emigration or silence (see EDM, November 29, 2012).
In this situation, RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service has been one of the few sources for reliable and accurate information about Chechnya and its neighbors, attracting a significant following in those republics. Moreover, this arm of RFE/RL regularly provided insights, to the rest of the former Soviet space and the West, about what leaders like Putin and Kadyrov try to hide about their continuing criminal activities in the most restive region still within the borders of the Russian Federation. Eliminating or having its journalists become part of the Russian Service—a move loaded with unfortunate political meaning—could undermine all those achievements. Furthermore, it would betray what has been a long-standing US commitment to the principles of human rights and national self-determination.
As Americans know well, without the bright light of close journalistic observation, tragedies and politically motivated killings are more likely to occur; at the same time, US broadcasts to the rest of the world have helped other peoples fight the abuses they suffer by showing them they are not forgotten and that others, including the people and the government of the United States, support them and their aspirations for a better future. Radio Free Europe played a key role in the victory of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries over Soviet occupation and Communism, while Radio Liberty played an equally important one in helping to break up the Soviet Union and even served as a breeding ground for a new generation of leaders. That was especially true because these broadcasts were delivered by members of those national communities, a tradition the North Caucasus service has continued.
The above-described legacy is now in danger of being forgotten for reasons that remain unclear. The proximate cause appears to be the threat Kadyrov made on the life of then–North Caucasus Service director Aslan Dukayev, earlier this year (RFE/RL, April 21). Following broadcasts that the Chechen strongman did not like, Dukayev had to seek police protection in Prague, where the outlet is based. Dukayev ultimately decided to resign from his position and recommend that the North Caucasus Service’s members be transferred to the Russian Service to avoid further negative repercussions. Indeed, management had already eliminated two of the three languages, set up in 2002, that the Service had broadcast in (Avar and Circassian); and it has since restricted broadcasting in Chechen, preferring instead to boost the Russian-language Kavkaz.Realii portal.
Many residents of the North Caucasus know Russian, of course; and it is worth noting that the readership of Kavkaz-Realii alone exceeds the number of visitors to the Tatar-Bashkir, Georgian and Moldovan sites RFE/RL maintains taken together. But at the same time, news that comes to people in a language other than their own is inherently different than that which is delivered in their mother tongue. And that is especially true in a place where Russian news under Moscow’s or Grozny’s control is often anything but reliable.
In 2013, the Broadcasting Board of Governors honored the North Caucasus Service of RFE/RL for its contributions. Victor Ashe, a BBG governor, said at the time that “its journalists work in ‘one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world [and the Service] is the only international broadcaster to provide objective news and analysis in the Chechen, Circassian and Avar languages’ ” (Usagm.gov, May 17, 2013). The Circassian and Avar broadcasts are no more, but RFE/RL echoes Ashe’s words to this day in describing the North Caucasus Service as it presently exists: It is, the radio portal says, “the only international, Chechen-language broadcaster providing an independent alternative to the tightly controlled official press in this notoriously arbitrary region of Russia” (Rferl.org, accessed June 23).
The portal adds that “the Service’s correspondents are regularly subjected to threats and intimidation. Assassinations and bombings are common, and anyone viewed as a potential threat to the local leadership or crossing ‘red lines’ can be imprisoned.” Additionally, the Service “is dedicated to covering human rights and other highly sensitive topics,” including repression against women and gays and the Chechen diaspora, at a time when Freedom House describes the media situation in the Russian Federation as “not free,” with the country ranking 174th among 198 countries overall.
It is precisely for those reasons and because of the United States’ commitment to human and ethnic rights that Washington must not back down in the face of threats from Putin and Kadyrov and allow the North Caucasus Service to be dissolved. The contemporary threats against it coming out of Russia, echoing similar threats from the Soviet KGB in the Cold War era, are testimony to this broadcaster’s continuing and vital importance.
Of course, it is all too easy for the US to decide that this fight is not worth fighting, especially when the groups involved lack a large domestic constituency. Indeed, US efforts to broadcast to the North Caucasus were ended twice before: in the early 1960s because of administrative problems and budgetary considerations and then again, after being restored a decade later, in 1976, because then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger felt the broadcasts targeting the North Caucasus populations were undermining détente (Kavkazr.com, March 1, 2018). Both times, the Service was eventually revived because policymakers realized it was needed. It still is, and must not be allowed to die a third time.