Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Using Russian News Agencies to Punish Independent-Minded Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 13 – The Kremlin is orchestrating an effort by Russian news agencies to play up “the theme of ethnic minorities in the post-Soviet states” to punish governments there which pursue an independent line, according to the political advisor to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
And that effort, Fuad Akhundov wrote in yesterday’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta – Kur’ier,” has the effect of “destabilizing the entire situation” not only inside these countries but also between them, their immediate neighbors and the Russian Federation (http://www.ng.riu/courier/2007-11-12/15_etnos.html).
Akhundov said that Baku was not surprised when at the beginning of 2007, the media in Armenia, which is locked in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, began “a major campaign” that was clearly intended at “provoking the national minorities” in Azerbaijan.
But he said that he and his colleagues found it “hard to understand that at the same time, the issue of ‘ethnic minorities in Azerbaijani’ began to appear” in a variety of Russian media outlets generally and in the Rosbalt and REGNUM news agencies in particular.
“The basic tribune for the dissemination of false reports about the so called ‘nationality question’” in Azerbaijan, the Aliyev advisor said, has become “the REGNUM information agency.” Its role, he continued, was somewhat surprising because it is “officially ‘a federal information agency’” of the Russian government.
That prompted him to examine what was going on more closely, Akhundov said, and over one two month period earlier this year, he found that REGNUM carried almost nothing on ethnic issues in Armenia and Georgia but more than 20 extremely tendentious articles on “’the problems’” of various ethnic minorities inside Azerbaijan.
Six of these were devoted to the Avars, five to the Lezgins, four to the Tatars, and three to the Talysh, and these reports, he said, were in many cases picked up by Russian newspapers and journals, thus creating a false impression of the situation in his country and leading some minorities to assume that Russia was backing them against Baku.
That REGNUM should be playing this role, Akhundov said, is not entirely surprising, given its origins and management. Modest Kolerov, the former head of the Russian President’s department for international ties with CIS countries and promoting Moscow’s interests there, created the agency in 2002.
Although Kolerov is no longer there, Akhundov said, many of his proteges and even “one of his close relatives continues to work” there, almost certainly guaranteeing that the Russian leadership can use that agency now in much the same way that it clearly did during him time.
But one need not engage in that kind of investigative reporting to demonstrate that Russian news agencies are being used by the Kremlin to portray those governments in the region that do not follow Moscow’s dictates but instead adopt an independent line, Akhundov continued.
Sergei Markov, a Russian commentator known for his close ties to the security services and the Kremlin, “openly admitted” during an interview with the Azerbaijani news agency Day.AZ that the appearance of negative articles about ethnic relations in Azerbaijan reflected Russia’s displeasure with Baku’s independence in foreign affairs.
Because Azerbaijan continues to play an active role in GUAM, an alliance of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova that Moscow does not approve of, Markov said, no one in Baku should be surprised that this has led to “anti-Azerbaijani” attitudes in the Moscow elite and those have been “directly translated into the mass media.
And Markov’s acknowledgement of this represents “a sensation,” Akhundov said. Hereafter all is “a member of the Social Chamber of Russia openly declaring that the Russian elite decides whether or not to promote ethnic separatism in Azerbaijan via the [ostensibly independent] media depends on the policies Baku adopts!”
Akhundov’s article appeared in “Nezavisimaya gazeta – Kur’ier” because he had requested from its editors the chance to respond to several articles that paper had carried earlier this year sharply criticizing Azerbaijan for its treatment of the Talysh minority and to explain why Baku had expelled that paper’s correspondent.
(The article that Akhundov specifically complained of appeared on September 10 (http://www.ng.ru/courier/2007-09-10/18_talshi.html; the reason the Azerbaijani authorities expelled the paper’s reporter was that she had crossed into a portion of Azerbaijan that is currently occupied by Armenia without Baku’s permission.)
Given the way in which the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin has been intervening in the domestic media, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Moscow would be doing the same thing in Russian news agencies that focus on developments in other parts of the former Soviet space.
But Akhundov’s article, by virtue of the care with which he makes his argument and the detailed evidence he offers, provides both confirmation of suspicions on this point and serve as a cautionary tale to all those inside the region and beyond who rely on Russian outlets for information on non-Russian parts of the former Soviet space.
Whilte these agencies may provide extremely useful information concerning Moscow’s intentions and policies, they are, as Akhundov suggests, not always the best guide to what is happening in the countries that they are purportedly covering as news agencies.

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