Thursday, June 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Why Russia Lost the Information War in Chechnya – and How It Might Avoid Defeat on Other Issues

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 12 – An article in the magazine of Russia’s military-industrial complex this week on how and “why Russia lost the information-ideological war” in Chechnya in 1994 and 1995 not only recalls an anecdote Russians often told during the Brezhnev period but forms part of a new discussion on how Moscow should regulate the media now and in the future.
According to the anecdote, some 30 years after the end of World War II, Adolf Hitler returned from the dead and turned up in Red Square during a May Day parade. He watched the tanks, the missiles, and the Soviet soldiers pass in front of the Politburo on the Lenin mausoleum, and as the parade continued, the former German fuehrer began to grin broadly.
A Russian went up to him, the story continued, and said “I bet you are smiling because you think that if you had had such weapons, you would not have lost the war.” “Oh no,” Hitler responded. “I was thinking that if I had had a newspaper like your ‘Pravda,’ no one would ever have found out that I did.”
The article about Russian media during the first post-Soviet Chechen war argues that “sufficient time has passed to analyze” the “disorganization” of public opinion in Russia because the Yeltsin government “literally forgot” about the importance of work “on ‘the ideological front’” (
Unlike any sensible government, the article continues, the Yeltsin regime “unfortunately did not give the population of the Chechen Republic or of the country as a whole convincing information and political, ideological and military justification which would have convinced the people of the need for military action on the territory of their own country.”
Instead, Yeltsin’s people both because of what they did – providing inconsistent information – and what they failed to do – ensure that the government spokesmen had a clear message to deliver --and because of what they allowed the media to do created a situation in which the population came to distrust the decisions and actions of their own government.
As a result of these failures and mistakes – and the article provides numerous examples of each – “public opinion was divided. Some believed in the correctness of the actions of the government. Some were not interested in politics in general and in the events in the Chechen Republic in particular. [But] many were unable to make sense” of what was happening there.
The independent media played to these various audiences in ways that made the information situation worse, the VPK article suggests, and the government and its policies fell further and further behind the curve of public opinion, creating a situation in which there was less and less support for what Moscow was trying to do.
The government made the situation worse for itself by being boring, putting out official statements that could often be shown to be false even as they were being made because the unofficial journalists were working hard to attract attention and show that they and not the official media were the better source of information.
Moreover, the Yeltsin government failed to react to independent media comments that slandered federal forces, failed to understand that different strata of the population relied on different sources of information – even then controlling television was not enough – and failed to control the access of the media to the enemies of the Russian state.
This situation could not fail to be exploited by these enemies, and it was. And the lesson for today is that it is long past time to create “an all-Russian organization which will guarantee the information and ideological defense of the population” against attempts from whatever source to misinform the people and set them against the government.
Such a structure, the article continues, “ought to include departments for the collection, systematization and analysis of information” from all sources and for ensuring that this information is disseminated in ways that do not permit it to be contradicted by others either at home or abroad.
That is the lesson of Russia’s loss of the information battle in the first Chechen war, the article concludes. And it argues that Russia was “not prepared” for the ideological defense of its interests “even in a single region,” let alone the country as a whole. That must be changed, the article says, to ensure Russia’s survival.
This article and the attitudes behind it feed into and help inform current debates among officials on how they should manage the news and the news media in order to promote their interests and the interests of the state, a debate whose latest twist was reported yesterday by Mar’yam Magomedova in “Novyye izvestiya” (
Over the last two weeks, a person or persons unknown have been setting automobiles on fire in Moscow. Government officials, Magomedova notes, have “according to Soviet custom attempted to conceal the problem instead of trying to solve it,” believing that “if something is not shown on television, then it does not exist.”
And when the officials are unable to prevent people from finding out about a phenomenon because, like the car fires in the Russian capital, then the next step they take is to blame the messengers -- in this case, the journalists, who these bureaucrats suggest are spreading the problem by reporting it.
As Igor’ Yakovenko, the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, told the paper, they find it “much simpler to accuse those who bring bad news than to search for the real sources” – an approach they have used in the past for reports about dedovshchina in the military, ethnic conflicts, and all problems the Kremlin prefers not to hear about.
Indeed, officials are even prepared to blame journalists for “unreliable information about the weather.” When many Russians complained about the mistaken predictions of the government’s weather service recently, a senior official in that service shot back that it wasn’t his organization’s fault; it was the fault of reporters.
Such a knee-jerk reaction and the willingness of Russian officials to speak openly about the need to control the press is extremely disturbing because, as Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Extreme Journalism told “Novyye izvestiya,” it reflects the continuing impact of “Soviet thinking” and the desire of every official to dictate what journalists should say.

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