Chechnya as a media event or Two views of one country
By Karel Trepes, special to Prague Watchdog
In the Russian media and their approach to Chechnya, it is easy to see why the Kremlin took Lenin’s advice that movies are the best propaganda tool. But today, in the 21st century, a similar tool is television. The Russian print media, particularly the expensive weeklies with a much smaller audience, are far more liberal than state-run television stations.
Nevertheless, in reviewing daily life in the Northern Caucasus, two stereotypes prevail that, to a great extent, determine the Russian public’s view about Chechnya. First are the reports about events in Chechnya as if it were a normal region in the Russian Federation where nothing unusual ever happens. As an example, last year’s news items covered Sberbank that opened its branch in Gudermes; and the constant mention of the Friendship Train on which Chechen folklore groups exported “friendship” to the rest of Russia. And through regular news reports readers discovered that, Sergei Abramov, the Moscow-backed Chechen Prime Minister, had been injured in a car accident near Moscow.
But this type of reportage about Chechnya is in contrast to disguised stories about the hard work of Chechen Vice-Premier Ramzan Kadyrov’s “tough boys”; sporadic mentions about the death of Russian soldiers during terrorist attacks, even to showing pictures of the bloodied body of Aslan Maschadov, the Ichkerian President who was killed by federal forces last year.
Yet this “reverse side” of Chechnya is not linked to current official events in most Russian media - it’s as if it were all taking place on another planet. When Russian state television last year showed an investigative piece about the kidnapping of people in Northern Caucasus, not one word was said that part of that must be on the conscience of Kadyrov’s people. According to the reports, underground groups and international terrorists were behind all of this.
Parliamentary Elections on Russian Television
The media’s tendency to create a picture of “two Chechnyas” was noticeable even during their reports on the parliamentary elections, which took place on November 27, 2005. Throughout the week, every Russian state-run television channel offered pre-election reports about the pro-Kremlin campaign of the United Russia party. Among other TV topics promoting current Chechen authorities was one about the birth of Vice-Premier Kadyrov’s son. Grozny citizens could be seen in front of the cameras cheerfully congratulating the delighted father just as if a royal prince had been born.
The most interesting propaganda piece took place on the ORT television channel on November 23. Viewers saw Khizir Khachukayev, a Chechen separatist general and supporter of the late President Maskhadov, appeal to his countrymen to lay down their arms and go to the voting booths. The general had fought against the Russians since 1994 and several times the Russian secret service reported his death. Now he was talking with commentators in front of the television tower in Ostankino. How this man, who until now had been declared a terrorist, got to the center of Moscow is not entirely clear. Reporters could only speculate that either he may not have been the real Khachukayev or that this man’s safety had been personally guaranteed by Ramzan Kadyrov.
On election day the main television stations had brief spots announcing that voting had begun and was progressing without problems. During the evening newscasts they then showed how local authorities voted, such as Kadyrov and the Moscow-backed Chechen President Alu Alkhanov. Occasionally there even appeared a shot of tired-looking Chechens who came to vote, but of course there was no conversation and no questions asked for whom they voted and why. And only a few explanatory shots showed the bullet riddled buildings around the voting places from which hung pieces of pre-election posters. Yet the television viewer never found out what the Chechens themselves expected from these elections.
The next day televised newscasts briefly mentioned how the vote count was going, the high turnout of voters and the satisfaction of the Kremlin that the election had been successfully accomplished. However, viewers had no opportunity to hear any sort of analysis on whether the election made any sense, or if the situation in the republic would improve or worsen. But later telecasts did show President Putin phoning Alkhanov to thank him for seeing that the election ran smoothly.
The dailies are liberal within the scope of possibility
Before the election, the daily newspapers, mainly the “unruly” Kommersant and the weeklies, were more balanced and displayed skepticism in comparison to televised newscasts. The Russian Newsweek, for example, extensively reported on the decision made by the liberal Union of Rightwing Forces (SPS), who put up as candidate Magomed Khambiyev, the former Ichkerian Minister of Defense. However, Argumenty i fakty wrote that the election results had already been decided on earlier and that members of parliament had just one job - to fix the Chechen constitution so that Ramzan Kadyrov could become president in 2006.
Yet no one doubts Russia’s right to decide about the situation in Chechnya, nor even the legitimacy of the elections. Human rights workers stated that the only argument prior to the pre-election campaign was a submachine gun and that elections under wartime conditions are not legal. But, as usual, their voices were ignored by the Russian media; anyone interested in reading about it could do so via internet on the human rights website.
Russian newspaper journalists accepted the Kremlin’s Chechen voting game with wearisome skepticism. “Participation exceeded in Chechen elections” blared Izvestia, the day after elections. “Chechen parliament elected regardless of voters” Kommersant stated. “Parliament in Chechnya elected with music” announced the Nezavisimaja gazeta. Even the economically focused paper Vedomosti stated “Parliament elected before lunch.” The dailies pointed out the alleged high voter turnout and added that the notice from the election commission stating 25% of voters were necessary to declare a fair election had already been delivered to the ballot boxes at noon on Sunday.
However, the Moscow dailies did not go so far as to cast doubt on voting irregularities. In fact, news about the Chechen parliamentary elections often never even made it onto the first page. When quotations appear, Kadyrov and Alkhanov are always the first ones to be quoted. And that was especially true now as they spent several minutes with journalists at the polling booth after casting their votes, Kommersant offered another reportage from Chechnya, which addressed voters who leaned toward the United Russia party. Izvestia again offered the analytical ideas of Dmitri Oreskin, who doesn’t care whether United Russia, SPS or communists get into parliament. He thinks it’s more important that the 58 new members of the Chechen parliament will be personally committed to Ramzan Kadyrov.
A view of a calm country
Although official results were not yet tallied the day after elections, no one doubted that United Russia and Kadyrov’s supporters would receive the most votes. At the same time Chechen battles are being fought in the media fields. Because the majority of Russians get their basic world information from television, the current administration has no intention of leaving anything to chance. According to official interpretation, the situation in Chechnya has returned to normal, satisfied citizens freely elected their members to parliament and democracy will blossom. And this is the same view that television stations broadcast.
The print media though show a more complicated mosaic although they don’t go too far. They wouldn’t reject the election as a farce as did Kavkazcenter, which is close to the radical wing of the Chechen resistance movement. They’re sensibly resigned to carefully point out the most flagrant acts of manipulating public opinion while fully aware that they’re walking on thin ice.
The Russian public is tired after ten years of bloody reporting from Northern Caucasus. A peaceful election actually deviated from a merry-go-round of explosions and violence, which is a customary part of television newscasts throughout the world. However, this time television stations neglected to announce that the road on which President Alchanov was driving to the polling station, a bomb disposal squad found three explosive charges that had been laid along the way. And two days after the elections, in one Chechen village, a group of masked men shot the municipal administration head and his son. But the people are so used to seeing such news reports from the “other Chechnya” on Russian TV that they would barely notice it anyway. And that suits the Kremlin just fine.
Translated by Jeannette Vota.