Expert analysis from RFE/RL on Boston bombings and Chechnya enhanced by Radio Liberty in Exile

BBG Watch Commentary

Boston-based Russian writer Mikhail Berg being interviewed by Sergei Mullin for Radio Liberty in Exile.

Boston-based Russian writer Mikhail Berg being interviewed by Sergei Mullin for Radio Liberty in Exile.

Last year, U.S. government bureaucrats in Washington wanted to eliminate Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) radio broadcasts to Chechnya. Today, RFE/RL experts, whose programs were saved thanks to actions by media freedom NGOs and sympathetic members of Congress, are providing some of the best analysis on the Boston bombings suspects and their Chechen links.

However, many other experienced RFE/RL journalists and analysts were fired last year by the station’s former management with the knowledge and consent of U.S. officials in Washington, but apparently without full knowledge of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the bipartisan board which oversees the entire operation. Known as Radio Liberty in Exile, these journalists are now working as volunteers to provide their own expert coverage on their news website and social media platforms while waiting to regain their old jobs at RFE/RL with the support of BBG board members and the new management at RFE/RL.

At the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic, RFE/RL Central Newsroom Director Jeremy Bransten interviewed Aslan Doukaev, director of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, for some insight into the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and their ancestral homeland.

RFE/RL: You mentioned earlier that in transit to the United States, the Tsarnaevs spent some time in Daghestan, although they were ethnic Chechens. Daghestan has recently become the focus of much of the violence in the North Caucasus. Can you give us a picture of what has been happening in that republic over the past 15-20 years?

Doukaev: It all began in 1994, when the so-called first Chechen War began in neighboring Chechnya. Chechnya over the past 19 years has suffered two serious conflicts. It left behind devastation and destruction and a lot of people were killed. But that conflict was not contained to Chechnya only. It gradually spread to neighboring territories: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and in particular, to Daghestan.

Daghestan is the biggest Russian republic in the North Caucasus. It’s the size of Scotland, it’s multiethnic and it has become these days the epicenter of instability in the south of Russia. While Chechnya is increasingly peaceful and stable — more or less — Daghestan seems to be descending into chaos. Every day we get reports about clashes, attacks, bombings, kidnappings. So Daghestan has a become a focal point of the insurgency in the North Caucasus.

RFE/RL: And is it fair to say that the mood in society has become increasingly radicalized?

Doukaev: We can say with certainty that Daghestan today is probably the most radicalized Russian republic. The so-called Salafis, the Wahhabis, they openly organize their meetings. The insurgency enjoys a certain amount of support from the population. There are various reasons why that’s happening. We may talk a lot about the corruption, the economic situation, the police brutality etc…. The fact is that today Daghestan is the most unstable, the most violent, the most radicalized territory in the whole of the Russian Federation.

RFE/RL: Now of course these two young men were living in the United States, though it seems their families retained strong links to the North Caucasus. What do we know about the North Caucasus diaspora in the United States? Are ethnic Chechens the most numerous?

Doukaev: We don’t know much about the diaspora. It’s not very big. There were several waves of immigration. The first wave was after World War II, and this diaspora lives in New Jersey, mostly. I hear that there are small communities in various parts of the United States, in Portland, Oregon, in Boston — by the way. But by and large, the Chechen community in the United States is very small and it’s not really well organized. There are scattered communities in various parts of the States. I don’t think they were in any way part of those communities, part of those diasporas. They had a kind of isolated existence in Massachusetts, mostly.

The interview shows that Kevin Klose, RFE/RL’s new acting president recently selected by BBG members, is slowly returning the U.S. taxpayer-supported institution to its former high journalistic standards after a period of unprecedented upheaval and losses of audience and reputation.

The full interview with Aslan Doukaev, director of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, can be seen here: “Interview: More About Tsarnaev Brothers And Their Ancestral Homeland,” RFE/RL, April 20, 2012.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty radio broadcasts in Chechen, Avar and Circassian, some of the main local languages in the North Caucasus region, were facing elimination last year due to decisions made by officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)–the bureaucratic arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that manages all U.S. civilian news broadcasts for audiences abroad. IBB officials, working with the former management of RFE/RL, almost succeeded in carrying out these cuts. Fortunately, they were blocked by strong opposition in Congress to these proposals.

RFE/RL is now under a new management of acting president Kevin Klose, but IBB officials who had proposed these cuts are still running the agency in Washington and appear to be resisting attempts by members of the bipartisan BBG board to reform the bureaucracy. They are apparently trying to prevent BBG members from hiring an experienced manager and leader like Kevin Klose to help the board regain control and transform the management culture at the International Broadcasting Bureau, which is now being run by IBB director Richard Lobo and his deputy Jeff trimble.

The former RFE/RL management and IBB officials are still being blamed for less than adequate coverage of the Boston bombings and the Chechen connection by the Radio Liberty’s Russian Service which lost dozens of experienced reporters and analysts who were fired in Moscow last September. Kevin Klose is reportedly working on bringing them back to Radio Liberty. These journalists were replaced by feature writers without much experience in political reporting and the Russian Service website began to resemble a tabloid magazine.

The fired journalists, who call themselves Radio Liberty in Exile, have been providing their own coverage of the tragic events in Boston and analyzing their impact in Russia and Chechnya. Their website is called Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty). Using Google Hangout, they have conducted an exclusive video interview with Russian scholar and writer Mikhail Berg who lives in the Boston area. Dr. Berg is an independent scholar at the Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He observed that according to media reports the suspects hated America and noted that hatred toward America has become the ideology of the Russian government of President Putin. That hatred toward America is also being promoted in the North Caucasus region, Dr. Berg said.

One of the best Chechnya expert Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty still has is a war correspondent Andrei Babitsky who has been a strong critic of the former RFE/RL management and their decisions to fire journalists and eliminate programs. He published a powerful open letter welcoming the resignation of the former RFE/RL president who made decisions to cut broadcasts and fire journalists. Babitsky supports his fired colleagues and told Radio Liberty in Exile that “after Chechen jihadist activity in Russia has been reduced and they are being squeezed, apparently, there is an increase of their activity abroad – in Syria, where the Chechens really fight now, and in the United States.”

Considering these facts, it was extremely unwise for the International Broadcasting Bureau officials in Washington and the former RFE/RL management to propose cutting radio broadcasts to Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus, the homeland of the Boston bombings suspects, and to fire experienced political journalists working in Putin’s Russia. These programs need to be protected in the interest of media freedom and U.S. national security. Fired Radio Liberty journalists in Russia need to return to their former jobs for the same reasons.

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