Dithering Moscow fails to shoot the messenger

Chechnya has highlighted the struggle to sustain press freedom in Russi a, writes Andrew Higgins in Moscow
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For more than a month now, from almost the moment Russian soldiers began slogging their way through the mud towards Grozny, Igor Malashenko has watched a far less bloody but no less significant battle ebb and flow across his spotless black desk in a Moscow high-rise.

The first salvo came on 15 December, fired over the telephone by Sergei Nosovets, the head of President Boris Yeltsin's information department. The message was as curt as that delivered 1,000 miles to the south by tanks to Chechen rebels: give up your independence or be destroyed.

"This was not a subtle hint, not a piece of friendly advice. It was very blunt," recalled Mr Malashenko, president of Russia's only independent television station, NTV. "What he said was very simple: `if you don't change your coverage of Chechnya, you will lose your licence.' " The same day, the state prosecutor's office sent a team to the station's television news room at the Ostankino Television Centre to investigate what it said was an inflammatory report on the news the previous evening.

Six weeks and many more threats later, the only change in NTV's programming is not one that will bring much joy to Russia's warriors: Mr Malashenko has cancelled plans for late-night erotic movies, a money spinner to fund less lucrative ventures such as a satirical puppet show only marginally less vicious than Spitting Image, new bulletins and the respected weekly digest of current events, Itogi.

The Chechen conflict has plunged Russia into a struggle on many fronts with the military campaign to oust Dzhokhar Dudayev as ruler of Chechnya running parallel with a still far from resolved struggle in Moscow to decide who, and by what means, should run Russia.

"Everything is connected. There is a direct link between political life in Moscow and what is going on in Chechnya," said Mr Malashenko. "Everyone knows that the media, particularly television, are the focal point of the fight over the Chechen war in Moscow. This is the litmus test."

President Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, gives much the same analysis. In a frank admission of the turmoil inside the Kremlin, he blamed attempts to crack down on the media on internal political intrigues. Regarded as one of the more liberal figures in Mr Yeltsin's entourage, Mr Filatov accused unnamed hardline aides of "seeking to prod the president to take unpopular decisions on the electronic media." Attempts to muzzle television were a "gamble against the President."

NTV has not been the only target. Also threatened was Russian Television, the more independent minded of Russia's two main state-run channels. But NTV aroused particular suspicion because of its private status. Its owner is a large business conglomerate called Most Group, which has close ties to politicians with presidential ambitions such the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and the liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky. It also has a bitter enemy in President Yeltsin's chief body guard, Alexande r Kor-zhakov, described by a hostile media as a Rasputin-like figure of immense influence.

The power centre in Moscow throughout the Chechen crisis has been Mr Yeltsin's Security Council, a 13-member body which, according to its secretary, Oleg Lobov, took the fatal decision to use force against Chechnya on 29 November. The council is almost identical to a Soviet-era politburo: secretive, composed of unelected figures, with the exception of Mr Yeltsin, and committed to decision-making by "consensus", the Communist Party's old tactic for shirking individual responsibility.

But if decisions are reached in much the same way as when Leonid Brezhnev sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979, methods for delivering them and making them stick are not. It is this gap between old habits and what, for all the echoes of the past, is still a very new Russia that has let some light into the tenebrous and schizophrenic world of Kremlin politics.

Confronted with grisly daily reports sharply at odds with the official version of events, the Kremlin initially responded by trying to silence the messenger. When telephone calls and other warnings failed to stop critical coverage of the war, the official state news agency, Itar-Tass, began carrying ominous reports of an imminent crackdown. Mr Yeltsin was reported to have signed a decree sacking the head of Russian Television, Oleg Poptsov, and to be preparing a separate executive fiat to "re-organise"


Nikolai Yegorov, the Minorities Minister and advocate of a military solution in Chechnya, even suggested that once troops had subdued the rebels they should "turn their guns on Russian television". But it was President Yeltsin who set the tone. In his only attempt to explain why Russia had embarked on its biggest military operation since Afghanistan, he accused the media of being in the pay of Chechnya.

But that was last month. Having now declared the war all but over, the Kremlin - or at least those officials currently enjoying Mr Yeltsin's favour - now sends a very different message. "The government is to blame for the way the press treated it," said Mr Filatov, the Kremlin chief of staff on Monday, "The press is society's eyes and ears. It should be helped not hindered."

But like the war in Chechnya, the struggle is far from over. What happens to NTV, the rest of the media and the other gains of Russian democracy, Mr Malashenko predicts, will depend on how Mr Yeltsin judges his own political interests: "He has no ideological attitudes or stereotypes whatsover. He can use communist ideology; he can use democratic rhetoric; he can be nationalist, militarist, pacifist you name it. It absolutely does not matter. He has a simple goals: he wants to maximise his power. he wants to keep it. It does not matter what kind of tools he uses."