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Russia: Politicians React With Silence, Dismay To Babitsky Exchange

Russian government officials say their announcement that the military has handed Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky over to Chechen militants means the government now bears no responsibility for his safety. Our correspondent Sophie Lambroschini in Moscow reports that while most Russian politicians are silent on the issue, a few say they feel the move bodes poorly for press freedom in Russia.

Moscow, 4 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian General Valery Manilov said today that the Russian authorities bear no responsibility for the fate of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky. Manilov said Babitsky was released, and that after his release he volunteered to trade himself to the Chechens in exchange for Russian prisoners.

There is no independent confirmation of this account. Babitsky has not been seen or heard from by his colleagues or family since mid-January.

Many Russian politicians interviewed by RFE/RL have been reluctant to comment on the treatment of Babitsky. Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov of the pro-government Unity party, for example, said that it is premature to make general conclusions.

Other Russian politicians, however, say the treatment of Babitsky is a worrisome signal to journalists across Russia. Duma deputy Boris Nemtsov tells RFE/RL that any decision to hand over a journalist to the enemy must have been made at the highest level.

"This would be a very powerful impulse to regional bosses to shut up all of those that are still capable of saying the truth. And that's a bad symptom and a bad signal. I hope very much that journalistic solidarity will force the authorities to listen to public opinion and make them make adequate decisions, independently of whose [political] side they're on. But the most important thing is that all the citizens of Russia, every one, should be under the state's protection. The state can't give up one of its citizens to the Chechens, for example. Even if Babitsky had agreed, which is difficult to believe, the authorities can't accept such a thing."

Nemtsov is a member of the Union of Right Forces, which was a pro-Putin movement during December's parliamentary elections. Lately he has distanced himself from unconditional support of Putin.

Vladimir Averchev is a deputy with the anti-Kremlin and reformist faction Yabloko. He told RFE/RL yesterday that the treatment of Babitsky was intended to frighten independent-minded journalists.

"Today the struggle with journalists doesn't only take the form of [information] selection and filtration. After all, different countries use such methods to some degree in similar situations. We remember how the Americans did this during Desert Storm. But here, we are seeing not only the intimidation of one specific journalist, but of the whole journalistic community, by demonstrating what can happen to a journalist if he dares defend an independent position."

Other Russian politicians seemed hesitant to make comments on a situation that obviously compromises the Kremlin. Contacted by telephone in the Duma, the Communist Party and Putin's party, Unity, both told RFE/RL on Friday that there was no deputy available to comment.

The Russian government, for its part, portrays Babitsky not as an independent journalist, but as a Chechen sympathizer. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said Thursday that Babitsky was biased toward the Chechens, and that he would exchange 10 Babitskys for one Russian soldier.

Russian law-enforcement authorities deny any responsibility in the affair. The spokesman for the Russian secret service, or FSB, Aleksandr Zdanovich, said Friday that the FSB had nothing to do with Babitsky's detention or his supposed trade. That contradicts what Russian authorities said earlier, that the FSB had taken part in Babitsky's arrest. And Zdanovich said that a video showing Babitsky during the purported hostage exchange had been made by the FSB.

The video, shown Friday on Russian television, is 30 seconds of silent footage showing Babitsky being escorted by Russian soldiers along a road, where he is met by a masked man who grabs him firmly at the arm. In later versions of the tape, Babitsky says he spent the night in a military van. The video is the first sign that Babitsky was alive while in Russian custody, but it is impossible to say when it was filmed.