Hard-Pressed Moscow Opposition Leaders Ask U.S. Not to Cut Russian-Language Broadcasts

 Window on Eurasia, Vienna, October 4 –- Three leading figures of the Russian opposition are calling on Washington to reverse its decision to reduce Radio Liberty’s Russian-language broadcasts next year, lest Russian citizens, at a time when Moscow has established “practically complete control” over domestic radio and television lose a vital source of “objective information.”

State Department, the foreign affairs committees and the Helsinki Commission of the Congress, and presidential candidates John McCain and Barak Obama, the three – Vladimir Bukovsky, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Boris Nemtsov – say that reducing such broadcasts from abroad would make their struggle for freedom that much more difficult.

(The Voice of America ended Russian-language radio broadcasting earlier this summer not only as part of a general cost-cutting effort but because the affiliates in Russia on which its programming was broadcast increasingly refused, under pressure from the Russian government, to carry VOA programs.)

As a result of the actions of Vladimir Putin, they point out, “the citizens of Russia no longer have access to objective information. Opposition leaders are not allowed on the air.” And last month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put pressure on Ekho Moskvy, “the last major [domestic] means of mass information.” (www.sobkorr.ru/news/48E5BE1112B25.html).

“It is difficult to understand,” they write, “why, in this situation, the Broadcasting Board of Governors [BBG] is taking a decision about reducing Russian language broadcasting of Radio Liberty, which is rare voice of independent thought for hundreds of thousands of radio listeners” in the Russian Federation and neighboring countries.

And they dismiss as “illogical” the BBG’s explanation that it will use the resources now being devoted to radio broadcasting for the station’s Russian-language website. “Government censorship in Russia,” they note, “affects mostly television and radio,” while “the Internet is independent.” Moreover, they noted, most Russians do not have access to the Internet.

Commenting on this letter, Sobkorr.ru commentator Yuri Gladysh writes that “the names alone” of the authors – “a legendary dissent of Soviet times, a successful governor and vice premier who almost became president, and a young journalist and politician” – “speak for themselves.”

Even the most inexperienced political analyst, he continues, “would draw the same conclusion: things are bad in a country when such people are forced to seek support abroad” and to appeal in the case of that country “not to the current leadership but rather to candidates for the highest positions.”
But Gladysh says he found something else about all this “curious” as well. Many Russian nationalists routinely claim that the US spends “enormous sums” to carry out an information war against Russia. But in fact, Washington’s decision here suggests that in the U.S., as “in any normal country,” “the need to save the money of taxpayers” takes precedence.

In his view, the Sobkorr.ru analyst continues, “this fact better than all the words [of the nationalists] says that a desire ‘to harm Russia’ at a minimum is not among the priorities of American policy, if indeed, it exists at all.” But the nationalists are likely to complain about this American decision anyway, as an indication that the U.S. does not take Russia seriously enough!

However that may be, the appeal of Bukovsky, Nemtsov and Kara-Murza is important for what it says about the direction in which Russia under Putin and Dmitry Medvedev is now moving and, especially regrettably, about the role some in the West are currently playing in that regard.

As many recent commentaries on the Russian Internet have pointed out, Vladimir Putin and his regime have so restricted freedom of information and political activity that in the words of one this week, “today in Russia there is no one left who can say ‘no’ to the powers that be, to explain where they are wrong” (newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/303687/cat/42/ )

But instead of helping today’s Russians to struggle against authoritarianism as the U.S. and other Western governments did by Russian-language broadcasts in the past, these governments are now whether they realize it or not unintentionally assisting those like Putin who want to undermine the freedoms earlier Western broadcasts helped Russians to pursue.

Dr. Paul Goble
Dr. Paul Goble
Paul Goble is director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. While there, he launched the “Window on Eurasia” series. Prior to joining the faculty there in 2004, he served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He writes frequently on ethnic and religious issues and has edited five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet space. Trained at Miami University in Ohio and the University of Chicago, he has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for his work in promoting Baltic independence and the withdrawal of Russian forces from those formerly occupied lands. Mr. Goble can be contacted directly at paul.goble@gmail.com.