Radio Liberty Shakes Up Dagestan

The launch of the US-funded radio station's new service for the North Caucasus is already creating waves in the region's largest republic.

Radio Liberty Shakes Up Dagestan

The launch of the US-funded radio station's new service for the North Caucasus is already creating waves in the region's largest republic.

Just as ordinary listeners in Dagestan responded with excitement to the first-ever foreign broadcasts in the indigenous languages of the North Caucasus, officials warned that they may seek to shut them down.

Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, based in Prague, began transmitting in the Dagestani language Avar, Chechen and Circassian on April 3 for two hours a day. The authorities in Makhachkala have already condemned the broadcasts as a potential source of extremism and separatism.

"Half of the broadcasts are devoted to Chechnya and repeat the content of Udugov's web site," Zagir Arukhov, Dagestan's deputy minister of nationalities, information and external relations told IWPR. He was referring to, the Chechen rebels' site, run by their outspoken ideologist Movladi Udugov. "We are surprised to see America, which proclaimed war on terrorism, taking Udugov's stuff, wrapping it in American covers and selling it to us."

The launch of the new service was delayed after Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Moscow's chief spokesman on Chechnya, warned that if Radio Liberty pressed ahead with it, the broadcaster, which is funded by the US government, might lose its license to broadcast to Russia.

But although Moscow's chief concern is the effect of Chechen-language broadcasts on the war-ravaged republic, Dagestani officials are also talking tough. "If we find anything against our interests in the broadcasts, we'll complain to the foreign ministry in Moscow and demand that Radio Liberty be stripped of its license and its Moscow office be closed," said Arukhov. "And no correspondent of Radio Liberty will ever set foot on Dagestani soil after that."

Meanwhile, many Avar acquaintances in Dagestan, when asked about the Radio Liberty initiative, were unanimously positive - even though most of them had not listened to the first broadcasts. Just over a quarter of Dagestan's two million people are ethnic Avars.

"It is always interesting to get a new angle on what is going on," said Akhmed Magdiev, a schoolteacher in Makhachkala. "Whatever local journalists produce just looks like one big Dagestanskaya Pravda."

Most independent journalists and analysts consider Dagestanskaya Pravda, the major government-owned newspaper in Dagestan, unprofessional and overly servile to local mandarins.

The Makhachkala government also controls television and radio broadcasts in local languages, which are filled mostly with ethnic music and news that sounds very similar to the content of Dagestanskaya Pravda.

Other Avars interviewed praised the news broadcasts for provoking more interest in a language that is gradually being edged out by Russian, especially amongst young people.

However, many complained they were unable to get a good signal. Short and medium wave bands, on which Radio Liberty broadcasts, have the best reception in mountainous areas.

"My relatives living in the mountains listen to Radio Liberty every day, and I will have to buy a more powerful wireless set to listen to it in Makhachkala," lamented Ibragim Ibragimov, a taxi-driver.

The Dagestani sociologist Enver Kisriev believes that the interest in the new broadcasts can largely be explained by the failings of the national media.

"In comparison with Yeltsin's time, the Russian media has stopped producing alternative reports, and it more and more resembles the Soviet media," he said. "In these circumstances anything critical of the ruling authorities, which can't ever be heard from the local media, will reach common people's hearts."

Arukhov, who also teaches journalism at the local university, criticised the professional standards of the producers of the Avar broacasts. "This American initiative will inevitably fail because of a dramatic lack of creative staff capable of producing good broadcasts," he said.

The issues chosen so far by the Avar producers were not of great urgency for ordinary Dagestanis: the station made its debut with a report about the lack of proper Avar-language textbooks in Dagestan's schools.

Interviewed recently from Prague, Sonia Winter, a spokeswoman for Radio Liberty, said that journalists for the Northern Caucasus broadcasts were picked in an open competition.

Kisriev said he expects the Avar service to become more confrontational over time. He thought it likely that the current crop of Avar journalists, who are constrained by Soviet-style self-censorship, will gradually be replaced by staff willing to criticize the local authorities, such as, for example, the exiled Avar poet Adallo Aliev, who was at one time a contender for a post at Radio Liberty.

An award-winning poet in Soviet times, Aliev turned into a hard line Islamist in the 1990s and a leading supporter of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev. After Basayev's failed incursion into Dagestan in 1999, he was placed on Interpol's wanted persons list by the Russian authorities and is now thought to be hiding in Turkey.

Dagestan has already been the stage for a high-profile conflict between the Russian state machine and Radio Liberty. In 2000, the station's correspondent in Chechnya Andrei Babitsky, whose war reports irritated the Russian authorities, disappeared for several weeks. When he reappeared, he was fined by a Makhachkala court for carrying forged passports in Dagestan. The five-day trial attracted national and international attention.

Nabi Abdullayev, a Dagestani journalist, works for the Moscow Times in Moscow.

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