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Chechnya: Czech Journalist Takes Critical View Of Situation Interview Part 1

  • Jeremy Bransten

Petra Prochazkova arrived in Moscow in 1992 on a three-month assignment for the respected Czech newspaper "Lidove Noviny." Eight years later, she remains based in the Russian capital and has become a veteran among foreign correspondents covering Russia.

In reporting from Russia, little has stood in Prochazkova's way. When former President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire into the Russian parliament building in 1993, Prochazkova was the only foreign reporter inside the building. She later won plaudits for her extensive coverage of wars throughout the former Soviet Union and especially for her work in Chechnya -- which remains unmatched for its depth.

Prochazkova spoke with RFE/RL last week in a wide-ranging interview that touched on her reporting from Chechnya and her observations on how Russia is likely to develop under newly elected President Vladimir Putin. In the first of this two-part selection from the interview, we focus on her views of Chechnya.

Prague, 25 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Prochazkova was asked to compare the current Chechen war with the previous conflict under President Yeltsin (1994-96). She was asked specifically to comment on the changes she has felt as a journalist covering the war-zone:

"The situation in the Caucasus and Chechnya -- and the change which occurred when Putin came to power -- precisely mirrors, although more dramatically -- how the political process is changing in the whole of Russia. The first war, which began in 1994, was of course just as horrible and caused an enormous loss of life but we, as journalists, could write about that war -- not just what we wanted but what we thought about it. We could work there freely. It was sometimes astonishing how the Russian leadership, which constantly made tragic mistakes, allowed us to write about them. At that time, Moscow was not waging an information war, and it left the initiative up to the Chechens."

Prochazkova noted that this time around in Chechnya, the situation is different:

"This second war, in this sense, is diametrically different. If you were an employee of the president's office, you would applaud, because Moscow has succeeded in controlling the flow of information. It has succeeded in controlling all the information -- or practically all the information -- that reaches the world out of Chechnya."

Prochazkova was asked how she foresees Chechnya's future. Is an eventual agreement on autonomy a possibility for the republic?

"I think such a possibility exists, but most likely it won't happen in the near future. For the moment, the Russians can count on the total exhaustion of most Chechens. Basically, most people don't care who is going to rule them -- if it's going to be [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Yeltsin or some China-man. They don't care. They want peace. They want the war to end and they are tired."

"The enthusiasm that was obvious during the first war is gone. The Chechens are angry at their own leaders and armed groups. They are angry at Maskhadov and -- most of all -- at [Chechen field commander Shamil] Basayev, [both of] whom they fault for being partly responsible for causing this war. I think that people are tired and desire only one thing -- and that is peace and quiet -- are relatively easy to manipulate if Moscow knows how to do it."

Prochazkova said that Moscow has begun to place ethnic Chechens who can be easily blackmailed or controlled in local administrative posts. She called that a return to a strategy often employed by the former Soviet Union in its erstwhile satellite states in Eastern Europe:

"The first thing Moscow did -- and it did so very smartly and very well -- was to create local administrations in the areas seized by Russian forces, which are led by Chechens. I know many of the people in these new administrations and I know what kind of people they are. Most of them spent a large part of their lives in Moscow. They have very good contacts with Moscow politicians. Above all -- and here, I think the FSB (Federal Security Service) plays a big role -- they are people who have had or currently have problems with the law."

"The FSB has been using this old and proven principle that people who fear something -- who can be accused of something -- are forgiven for the moment, if they follow directions given to them. If this were true in only one case, I wouldn't talk about it. But I personally know of several such cases in Chechnya and I think that it's a way for Moscow to maintain Chechnya in what can be called a 'normalization process' -- through these people, who tend to be very rich and have influence because they are from prominent families and at the same time can be manipulated."

Prochazkova was then asked to evaluate the policies of Western leaders toward Russia, in light of events in Chechnya and the alleged mass violations of human rights committed by Russian forces in the breakaway republic:

"It always outrages me -- I am gradually becoming a critic of the West's approach to Russia -- it outrages me to see the West choose a politician and uncritically stop listening to anyone else. Often, this occurs because Western leaders don't know anyone else in that environment. But [for Western leaders] to come to Russia at a time when Putin was the strongest presidential candidate and his electoral campaign was based on a very strong militant war-footing in Chechnya was a mistake and is in a sense supporting something that can be called a crime."

She also faults Western governments for giving the Russian leadership mixed signals, which could be interpreted in Moscow as license to continue the military campaign in Chechnya.

"Suddenly, words did not match deeds. Everyone in the West was crying out that it was wrong to wage war against the Chechens and massacre civilians, but on the other hand they publicly supported him [Putin] as a presidential candidate. In other words, they were telling him: 'Don't worry, we'll look the other way, we just have to criticize you because that's what public opinion demands in our countries. But we want you to be president.' The West's first contact with Putin was based on this bad premise. He knows he can do what he wants as long as it doesn't pose a danger for the West and it only concerns human rights in Russia."

Prochazkova was asked about the political opposition within Russia and why it has been so passive in its response to the situation in Chechnya. She noted that most opposition leaders initially supported the intervention in Chechnya, hopeful that Putin would succeed where Yeltsin had failed. Because of this initial support, she said, many opposition figures now find themselves outmaneuvered and temporarily voiceless:

"I think the democratic opposition is in a state of collective depression. They have understood -- at least some of them -- that they made a mistake. Because of that, they are co-authors of this great national tragedy which is again occurring, they share responsibility for the mass violation of human rights which is sure to continue and they don't know what to do."

Prochazkova added that Russia's opposition leaders are constantly "fighting among themselves, which democrats do with relish. They have not found a common language or common approach toward Putin." As a result, Prochazkova said, they have ceased to take any fresh initiative on Chechnya, limiting themselves to issuing statements that have no effect. For her, "at this point, the [Russian] opposition is fractured -- and it's a very sad sight."