Chechen separatist rebels fighting against Russian army forces possess weapons far inferior to those of their foes. But as RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports, in their propaganda war with the Russians, Chechen fighters have been using a very sophisticated weapon -- the Internet.
Prague, 11 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last Sunday (May 7), Russian forces sought to cast doubt on claims by Chechen rebels that they had shot down a Russian SU-24 jet fighter bomber. But when a picture of Chechen fighters holding parts of the plane's wreckage appeared on the rebels' Internet website, the Russians were forced to admit the claim was probably true. The rebel website -- kavkaz.org -- had proved its effectiveness again.
It might seem odd that bedraggled partisans moving among mountain hideouts in a country desolated by war would use computers and sophisticated Internet technology to communicate with the world. But the Chechens are actually not the first such insurgents to use the Internet. In 1994, previously unknown rebels calling themselves Zapatistas in the Chiapas region of Mexico used the web -- in conjunction with some dramatic attacks against government forces -- to tell an international audience about their struggle and their aims.
The mastermind behind the kavkaz.org website is Movladi Udugov. During the 1994 to 1996 war between Russian forces and Chechen rebels, he was Chechen information minister and was credited by some Russians with defeating them in the propaganda war by working closely with foreign journalists covering the conflict.
When Aslan Maskhadov was elected Chechen president in 1997, Udugov served briefly as his foreign minister but later fell out with him. He then became a prominent member of an organization that wants to impose Islamic rule on a single entity unifying Chechnya and Daghestan.
It was Udugov's idea to launch the website last summer, before the Russians imposed an information blockade. When the Russians attacked Chechnya last autumn, they tried to seal off the republic from the outside world. The Russians were able to jam radio and television broadcasts, but interfering with the Internet -- which can be reached anywhere in the world -- is a much more difficult matter.
The site is particularly important during the current fight against the Russians, because unlike in the earlier conflict, this time there are far fewer foreign journalists able to report from the Chechen side.
Because the Chechen site is primarily designed to influence foreigners, it appears in Russian, English and a handful of other languages -- although not in Chechen. Journalists, government officials, area experts and others around the world interested in finding out about the war use the Chechen website, which offers news, interviews with Chechen leaders, fighters and civilians. Photographs published on the site are often used to back up Chechen claims, displaying images of the dead on both sides as well as of Russian prisoners.
A London-based specialist on the Caucasus, Anna Matveeva, says that the website does not have a mass following but is used by many influential news media and by specialists such as herself.
"Well, of course, it's propaganda -- but what Russian newspapers write is also propaganda. But [the website] is [of] reasonable quality."
Michael Randall -- a Chechnya expert at Britain's Institute for War and Peace Reporting -- says that although kavkaz.org is prone to exaggeration, its information is usually rooted in fact. He says the site has played an important role in keeping the Chechen situation in public view, by focusing on issues like the abuse of Chechen civilian and military prisoners held by the Russians.
Randall says the site is more forthcoming about where the actual fighting is going on than are the Russians:
"You can look at it and use it as a geographical pointer towards where the fighting is going on at the moment. The Russians say much less about where fighting is breaking out, and the Chechens say more. So it gives you the ability to pinpoint where the battle is going on. But you have to take the casualty figures with a pinch of salt because obviously the whole emphasis of their propaganda campaign is to exaggerate the figures."
The Russians have tried to have kavkaz.org shut down. But tracking down exactly where the website is composed and put onto a server -- the conduit for accessing the Internet -- is not easy.
Last fall, just before the Russian attack on Chechnya, the Russians launched a diplomatic offensive to have the site removed from a U.S. server. That server removed kavkaz.org, saying it contained terrorist propaganda and hate material.
The site has since moved among several other servers and now seems safely entrenched. But Russian computer hackers have managed to break into the site and alter it on at least two occasions.
Possibly the most serious attack on the site is coming from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov himself. His representative in Washington, Lyoma Usmanov, says that Maskhadov believes that kavkaz.org erroneously identifies all Chechen guerrillas as fighters in a holy war -- or jihad -- aimed to bring about strict Islamic rule in Chechnya. There has even been some speculation that the website is funded by Saudi Arabians or by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident who is widely accused of supporting international terrorism.
The promotion of jihad, Usmanov says, plays into the hands of the Russians, who have sought to portray their campaign in Chechnya as directed against Muslim fundamentalists:
"Kavkaz.org and Udugov do not represent Chechen interests at all. The method of kavkaz.org about any event in Chechnya is that they report it as a struggle between Islamic rebels, mujaheddin, and Russians maybe somehow, one can see, against Christians. We cannot accept it."
But for now, as the Russians are still not allowing most independent journalists into Chechnya, the kavkaz.org website is likely to remain a key source of information on the war.