THE week ended in Prague, at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and a conference marking the first anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. The radio’s building originally housed the sham parliament of communist Czechoslovakia. In 1989 your diarist watched as its glum-faced members voted themselves out of the jobs they had occupied since the “normalisation” that followed the Soviet invasion of 1968. Now, on a huge screen, staff and guests watched the editor of Politkovskaya’s old paper, Novaya Gazeta, talk gloomily on a video linkup from Moscow about the battle to survive. The Kremlin does not need to use the wide-ranging extremism law, he explained. It is enough just to intimidate the advertisers.
The journalists and analysts of RFE/RL have two distinct audiences. They produce vernacular-language broadcasts and internet material for ex-Communist countries and south-west Asia; and English-language research for outsiders who watch the region (including the American government, which pays their salaries). As usual, management and budgetary upheaval are in the air. Yet it seems to have little effect on the content: incisive, dependable and original. A recent report on jihadist use of the internet was a model of its kind; a follow-up on officially endorsed extremism on the Russian internet—provisionally entitled “Two clicks to fascism”—is keenly awaited.
The margins are often more interesting than the proceedings of such conferences. Even after umpteen rounds of deplorable cuts and shakeups, RFE/RL is still a treasurehouse of expertise on obscure subjects, such as the “semi-clandestine” meetings of the Belarussian government-in-exile, or the criminal records of offbeat oligarchs.
Your diarist was soon happily ensconced with the inimitable Viktor Yasmann, the station’s veteran analyst of Russian spookery and of the nascent ideology of “sovereign democracy”. Questions discussed included: how far do the people running Russia really believe in the noxious mixture of anti-Westernism, nationalism, autocracy and semi-religious hokum that the state propaganda machine spews out? What lasting effect is it having on public opinion? And will it change after March when (supposedly) President Vladimir Putin’s successor will be elected?
Over coffee, participants competed to cite new outrages in the pro-Kremlin press. A prime example was an article in the October 18th edition of the official Russian government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, on the subject of the massacre of thousands of captured Polish officers at Katyn and other locations in April 1940.
It was a defining moment in the Gorbachev era when the Kremlin admitted the murderers were not—as the Stalinist falsehood asserted—the Nazis, but the NKVD. Now that clock is running backwards: the September 18th article, by one Aleksandr Sabov, asserts that the evidence of NKVD involvement is flimsy and unreliable. That is roughly akin to a German government newspaper (if such a thing existed) promoting Holocaust denial. Oddly, the article is not on the Rossiskaya Gazeta website (although PDF copies are available on the internet). Perhaps the editors are ashamed of what they printed.
Such things stiffen the ex-communist countries’ resistance to Kremlin blandishments. But it would help if their supposed allies would get their act together too. Atlanticist opinion has been bruised and battered by American blunders in presenting the case for missile defence bases in the region.
The latest fiasco was when American officials said Russian military experts could be based at the planned anti-missile radar station in the Czech Republic. Given that the Kremlin’s occupation forces left barely 15 years ago, the return of Russian soldiers of any kind would be a ticklish proposition at the best of times. But it turned that the American announcement was the first the Czechs had heard of the notion. Having hung their allies out to dry, the Americans then changed their mind. For eastern Europe’s loyal Atlanticists, the end of the Bush administration cannot come soon enough. But perhaps they should be careful what they wish for.