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Russia: Moscow Clamps Down On Chechnya Coverage, But No Solution In Sight For Republic

Russian officials have fired a prominent telejournalist after he publicly criticized orders not to broadcast his interview with the wife of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, who was assassinated in Qatar earlier this year.

Prague, 3 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's state-controlled media is limiting access to information on the situation in Chechnya, where last month's assassination of President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has left the republic with a power vacuum.

NTV journalist Leonid Parfenov was fired this week after he publicly criticized his company's decision not to air his interview with Malika Yandarbieva, the widow of former Chechen acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev.

Yandarbiev was killed earlier this year in Qatar, when an explosive device detonated underneath his car as he and his son were returning from a mosque. Two Russian security agents are currently on trial in Qatar in connection with the blast.

Parfenov's interview with Yandarbieva, which includes allegations about the role of Russian security services in her husband's assassination, was aired on 30 May in eastern Russia but was pulled from broadcasts to European Russia. The Ekho Moskvy radio station reported the following day that NTV officials had pulled the feature on a request from unspecified Russian security agencies.

Parfenov, host of the popular "Namedni" (Recently) news program, told Ekho Moskvy he had already postponed the program for a week after becoming convinced he should wait until after the defendants in the Qatar case had made their statements in court. But after publicly criticizing the NTV decision, Parfenov was fired on 2 June.

"The reason [for the dismissal] -- although it is formulated differently -- is the interview with Yanderbieva," Parfenov said. "When it was taken off the air, I was against it, but I complied with the written order. But I refused to conceal the fact that the interview was taken off the air."

NTV, once Russia's best-known privately owned station, is now controlled by the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. NTV officials say Parfenov was fired for breach of contract. The Kremlin has dismissed any ties to the matter.
"I complied with the written order. But I refused to conceal the fact that the interview was taken off the air." -- Parfenov

But some observers are skeptical. Igor Yakovenko, the general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, condemned Parfenov's ouster as an assault on media freedoms.

Despite such crackdowns, news continues to trickle out of Chechnya.

Much of it is about the situation in the republic since the death of Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow leader on whom the Kremlin had pinned many of its hopes for eventual "normalization" in Chechnya.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said with some surprise that the situation in the republic appears to be stable.

"I think that the main achievement for the Kremlin is that the situation did not become radically worse and did not slip out of control after the assassination of Kadyrov," Petrov said. "The situation is relatively stable."

However, Thomas de Waal of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting disagreed. He said that a month after Kadyrov's death, violence in the republic has taken a turn for the worse.

"I think it would be incorrect to describe the situation as stable in Chechnya. We have seen in the last month an increase in attacks by the rebel side in Chechnya," de Waal said. "We've seen attacks in Alkhan-Yurt, in Samashki, in Vedeno, in different places. We've seen land mines being used on a more active scale. So, I think it would be incorrect to say that the situation has been quiet."

Chechnya's near future appears uncertain. A member of the Council of Europe touring Chechnya, German parliamentarian Rudolf Binding, today told dpa that there are "still considerable problems in [Chechnya's] political sphere."

The main question is who -- and in what way -- Russia will select to be the next leader in Chechnya.

Nikolai Petrov said Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to giving support to those Chechen groups that backed Kadyrov. Putin met with Kadyrov's son Ramzan just after the assassination, sending a clear signal that Kadyrov's supporters are still in favor with the Kremlin.

Elections to find Kadyrov's successor are currently scheduled for 29 August. Petrov said it is not yet certain whether Moscow will openly push for a preferred candidate -- as it did last year with Kadyrov -- or let voters choose from a range of pro-Moscow politicians.

Either way, it is a loss for the Kremlin. De Waal said there is not a single Chechen leader who can claim broad power in the republic the way Kadyrov did. Kadyrov had the ability to cut deals with a range of different political groups in Chechnya -- something de Waal said might now be impossible.

Moreover, de Waal said, the Kremlin must move quickly in order to stave off a potential upsurge in violence that could destabilize the entire North Caucasus region.

"We've seen lots of trouble in the last few months in Ingushetia, for example. There are lots of worries about the rise of Islamism in places like Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria," de Waal said. "So, certainly I think there is a hidden problem in the North Caucasus."