Prague's silent spring
Budget cuts kill an institution
FOR outsiders interested in the ex-communist world, the English-language material produced by the research department of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is invaluable. But it will not be available much longer. The department is closing. Its analysts are job hunting. Some bulletins have stopped already. The reason is simple: budget cuts caused by the weak dollar.
It is a sad end to an era. The radios (based in those days in Munich) helped win the last cold war. Many of the staff were émigrés who became household names in their captive homelands thanks to their broadcasts.
But triumph was followed by a dispiriting process of retrenchment and cuts. The radios moved to Prague—though that is now an expensive city too. Language broadcasts to central Europe and the Baltics were chopped (though new ones were started in languages such as Chechen). The analytical focus shrank and shifted.
The invaluable “Tatar-Bashkir Daily Report”, for example, covering what 90 years ago was the briefly independent state of Idel-Ural, stopped publication in November 2005. Though the vernacular-language broadcasts remain, it is hard to see how they will maintain their quality as the main brains of the organisation disperse.
A sign of how much the bad guys dislike the radios' work came only last month, with a big cyberattack that temporarily brought down the website of the Belarusian-language service, probably to stop people reading it on the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. That recalled the Soviet-era practice of jamming, at vast expense, foreign short-wave radio broadcasts.
Subscribers will now find a bothersome hole in their email in-boxes. The RFE/RL material was concise, accurate, incisive, and covered corners of the region such as Moldova that scarcely feature on the English-language internet. It was also free.
Some of the alternatives are excellent, but costly. The BBC Monitoring Service provides colossal quantities of translated news from the whole ex-communist region—but at an annual cost (depending of how much you want) of several thousand dollars. It is also so voluminous that it can easily take an hour to read a daily dose properly.
Rather less expensive is Transitions Online, which for a piddling $44 a year provides information from 28 countries in the region. It is a Prague-based non-profit spin-off from an earlier bit of downsizing by RFE/RL, less newsy and more colourful.
Contributors include luminaries such as Andrew Wilson, a British-based scholar who coined the phrase “virtual politics” to describe the mixture of manipulation and populism used by elites in the phoney democracies of the ex-Soviet Union. An outfit called Templeton Thorp provides a useful free media digest, with business-focused news available on subscription.
Perhaps the sharpest and most unusual analysis comes from “Window on Eurasia”, a thrice-daily bulletin filed by the indefatigable Paul Goble, one of America's most seasoned observers of the region and a onetime heavyweight figure at RFE/RL and other outfits financed by the American government.
If you are gripped by stories about the revival of Circassian national consciousness, incensed by the FSB's attempts to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or intrigued by the growth of traditional paganism in Mari-El, then Mr Goble's mailings will become your favourite breakfast reading.
But barring a last-minute change of heart in the Senate, the generalist who wants a crisp and topical analysis of the region's news will find little substitute for RFE/RL. At a time when billions are available for the projection of hard power, it is odd that a few millions can't be found for something that embodies America's much more effective soft power. That reflects badly on both politicians, and the ability of the radios' management to lobby them.