Baku, January 28 –Moscow and Nazran are working hard to prevent the world from learning about their repression of the Ingush people, an effort intended to prevent the further deterioration of the Kremlin’s image, protect the jobs of those doing the dirty work, and discourage people now standing up for their rights from doing so in the future.
Yesterday, thanks to the heroic efforts of Ingush, Muscovite, and Radio Liberty journalists, officials in these two capitals failed to keep the story of the use of potentially lethal force against people whose only “crime” was wanting to demand that the government there obey the Russian constitution.
But while journalists succeeded in getting the story out on a few media outlets and more broadly on the Internet, Aleksei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Fund, said on Ekho Moskvy radio Saturday, Russian officials are likely to intensify such efforts in the future (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1206495.html).
To the extent the authorities succeed, past experience suggests, they may achieve their goals for a time, especially given that many Russians will accept the Kremlin’s characterizations of “persons of Caucasus nationality” and that many foreign governments will be quite willing to ignore what their “strategic partner” is doing.
But in the longer term, preventing the free flow of information about what the Russian authorities are doing will have three negative consequences that some may be inclined to ignore at present but that almost certainly will prove more serious than any possible impact honest news coverage of yesterday’s events in Ingushetia.
First, preventing the Russians and the international community from learning about such repression will discourage those in the North Caucasus from engaging in the open politics of public protest and make it more likely that they will listen to radicals who argue that violence is the only possible way forward.
Second, throwing a blanket over what is going on will only heighten the suspicions many in the Russian Federation have on the basis of long experience that their government is lying to them, increasing cynicism about all its claims, undermining the legitimacy of those in office, and laying the ground for an eventual explosion.
And third – and this beyond any doubt is the most unintended consequence of all – destroying the free flow of news will deprive the Russian government itself of the information its leaders need to make reasonable decisions in a timely fashion so as to prevent the country falling into disaster.
Because the impact of this mistaken approach is so great, it is important to focus on what took place in Ingushetia on Saturday and especially on how Moscow and Nazran conspired to prevent people finding out about it or, failing that, so muddying the waters that many Russians and foreign governments won’t be sure what or whom to believe.
Several weeks ago, groups in Ingushetia opposed to that republic’s president, Murad Zyazikov, announced plans to hold a demonstration in Nazran on January 26 to call Moscow’s attention to Zyazikov’s arbitrary and oppressive rule and his blatant falsification of the results of the December 2nd parliamentary elections.
Zyazikov, for his part, engaged in the harassment of the organizers, sought to close down the Ingushetia.ru website which had been detailing his violations of the law and the constitution, orchestrated statements by groups he controlled on his behalf, issued a decree banning all protests, and got Moscow to declare part of his republic a zone of counter-terrorist operations thus giving him additional powers against his enemies.
Nonetheless, the opposition decided to go ahead. But when columns of people approached the square where the demonstration was to take place – and organizers expected 10,000 people to participate – they were confronted by armed OMON units, one consisting of recent Ingush draftees and others from outside the republic.
Most turned back, but several hundred young people managed to get through. Reportedly fights broke out, with some of the protesters throwing rocks and improvised Molotov cocktails at the OMON units and the latter responding with tear gas, smoke bombs, and gun shots over the heads of the protesters.
Forty-three of them were taken into custody and, although later released, were charged with violating the ban on demonstrations. Meanwhile, the organizers, who themselves did not get to the square, has announced it will try again to stage a demonstration on February 23.
(For details, see www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1206499.html, www.ingushetiya.ru/news/13044.html, grani.ru/Politics/Russia/Regions/m.132823.html , www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1206495.html and www.svobodanews.ru/Article/2008/01/26/20080126130306267.html.)
But as excessive as the authorities’ use of force against the protesters was, Moscow and Nazran officials made it clear that their primary concern was not so much maintaining order on the ground but rather controlling media reporting about it so that few beyond the immediate participants could be sure what happened.
Not only did they put out a variety of reports designed to muddy the waters and made sure that most media outlets did not provide detailed coverage of what had taken place in a timely matter, but they detained four journalists and hustled them out of the republic (http://grani.ru/Politics/Russia/activism/m.132843.html).
Some Russian papers are providing coverage today, but officials in Moscow and Nazran are nonetheless likely to feel they have won: Few Russians read these papers, and thus their reports won’t have a massive impact, and most Western news outlets won’t want to report about something so “old,” limiting the spread of the story there.)
The efforts of the people of Ingushetia to defend their rights deserve the attention of both Russians and those abroad who deal with or study that country. The courageous actions of the Echo Moskvy, Radio Liberty, Novaya Gazeta, and Fifth Channel deserve everyone’s respect.
But most of all, this latest effort by the increasingly repressive government of President Vladimir Putin and his agents, like Murad Zyazikov in Ingushetia and Ramzan Kadryov in Chechnya, deserve the condemnation of all those who say they care about the spread of democracy and freedom – or at least publicly proclaim that they do.