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Russia: Media Support Bombing Chechnya

It's still not clear who is behind the recent string of fatal explosions in Russia, but authorities are putting the blame squarely on breakaway Chechnya. Most Russian media endorse this view. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports from Moscow that the media's treatment of Chechens and Chechnya is almost uniformly negative.

Moscow, 23 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The five explosions that have killed almost 300 people in Moscow and other cities in the past month have horrified Russia. Television has beamed images of mangled bodies and buildings and the anguished faces of the victims' families into every Russian household over the past few weeks.

A whole range of politicians have said that harsh measures are necessary to put an end to the wave of terrorism. Almost every official identifies the bombings as the work of Chechen guerrillas, even though they have yet to make a compelling public case for Chechen involvement.

Since the beginning of August, fighters led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev and by a Saudi-born guerrilla known as Khattab have crossed the Chechen border and seized villages in neighboring Dagestan in a bid to create a separate Islamic republic. Yet Basaev and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov have both denied Chechens are responsible for the explosions.

Authorities in Russia reject the idea that other culprits with political or criminal motives might be behind the explosions. Most Russian newspapers and television stations fully endorse the view that Chechen warlords masterminded the bombings. They point to earlier statements by Khattab in which he threatened explosions.

Newscasts and analytical programs have praised the creation of civilian vigilante patrols that tenants have formed to protect their apartment buildings. Reporting on "suspicious behavior" is being applauded. And news reports are calling arbitrary document checks of people with dark skin a "necessary" measure. Russia's most popular commentator, Sergei Dorenko, went so far as to say the Russian army should "submit Chechnya to carpet bombings."

A Sunday news program on the state-owned RTR television channel showed shocking footage of Chechens executing Russian soldiers. The footage, which dated from 1996, was shown without commentary. But the implied link with the recent apartment bombings was clear, as the next segment was an interview with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the fighting in Dagestan and Chechnya.

Russian television is also showing footage of Dagestani villages devastated by the fighting. Russian Defense Ministry officials have been interviewed about their losses, some 250 soldiers. But Russian television is showing almost no footage from Chechnya itself, where Chechen President Maskhadov says that more than 200 civilians have been killed by Russian air strikes.

Chechen fighters are in part responsible for this lack of coverage. A series of brutal kidnappings of Russian and Western citizens since the end of the war has made Chechnya too dangerous a place for most non-Chechen journalists.

In the 1994 to 1996 war that brought Chechnya de facto independence from Russia, Chechnya largely won the battle for public opinion. The Chechens projected the image of a small, separatist people struggling to defend their territory from indiscriminate attack.

This time, even those journalists who criticized Russian authorities during the earlier war now say it is clear that the aggression comes from the Chechens.

Some voices in the media have expressed concern that public anger over the attacks could fuel an irrational hatred of everyone from the Caucasus region, or anyone with dark skin. Respected television commentator Irina Petrovskaya has criticized the informal polls conducted by several television stations. She said viewers were invited to choose "who should be expelled from Moscow" following the attacks. Possible choices offered included "all the Chechens," "everyone from the Caucasus" and "all the bandits."

Some Russian and Western commentators in Moscow note that the real danger for the media is pushing Russian society and its fragile democratic institutions toward chauvinism and xenophobia. They say that encouraging Russians to report on the "suspicious behavior" of their neighbors is reminiscent of the country's totalitarian past.