Russian politicians and even state-run media are adding their voices to a chorus of criticism of the Russian government over its treatment of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow.
Moscow, 10 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- What has become known as the "Babitsky case" continues to be one of the main news items in Russia, even as Russian officials try to play down the government role in the RFE/RL journalist's fate.
The Russian government said it traded the Chechnya correspondent, who was detained leaving Grozny in January, to Chechen militants last week and is no longer responsible for his safety. But no independent observer has seen or spoken to Babitsky since mid-January, and many Russian and international groups, including some Western governments, insist the government is responsible for Babitsky.
Sergei Yushenkov, a Duma deputy with the Union of Right Forces, told RFE/RL that he thinks the Russian government's treatment of the journalist is an example of a crackdown on freedom of the press.
"I think this simply means a turn from an immature state of law to a ripened police state. It's not only about Babitsky...he's simply an especially striking example of a tendency. It is clear that the authorities are giving an example of what the attitude toward journalists and freedom of the press in general will be if the press coverage doesn't correspond with what the government and the acting president want."
Even politicians who generally support the government have begun to speak out on the issue.
Today, the influential Anatoly Chubais, who is head of the electricity monopoly UES and a main supporter of the acting president, called the authorities' behavior toward Babitsky a mistake that will have far-reaching political consequences.
"The exchange of Babitsky, if you can call it an exchange, is indisputably and undoubtedly a mistake. I don't know on what level, or what was the mechanism of the decision-making. But there is no [doubt] that by its essence and its further consequences, including on acting President Vladimir Putin, it (the exchange) is negative. That is absolutely clear. I very much hope this situation will be resolved."
Last November, Chubais was one of the most fervent supporters of the war in Chechnya and called its critics traitors to Russia.
Even the state-owned media, which until this week had largely ignored the Babitsky affair, have begun to report on it, providing both the government's version and critics' responses. State-controlled ORT television Wednesday opened its 9 pm news with an item on Babitsky, and state-controlled RTR aired a six-minute segment that reported on the government's contradictory statements. NTV, a commercial channel, opened most of its news programs Wednesday with the story.
The Duma has not formally taken up the issue as a body. On Tuesday, a proposal to put the Babitsky affair on the discussion agenda failed, rejected by the Unity party, which supports Putin, as well as by the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's faction. The Union of Right Forces and Yabloko voted for the measure, which would have added questions about Babitsky to a list of questions that the interior and defense ministers must answer when they address the Duma on Friday.
However, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev said the questions could still be put to the ministers on Friday. He added that, "on a human level," he felt compassion for Babitsky and his family. Seleznev and several other top Communist officials, including party leader Gennady Zyuganov, did not take part in the vote.
Union of Right Forces deputy Boris Nemtsov told RFE/RL that the Duma will ask the government officials about Babitsky.
"Of course they will still have to answer the three questions. Where is Babitsky? On what basis do Russian authorities give a Russian citizen away to bandits? Does the Babitsky case mean a threat to all journalists and to press freedom? Those are the three questions we will ask and we will demand an answer."
Yabloko deputy Vladimir Lukin told RFE/RL that the recent dismissal of Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov could be a sign that Russian authorities are searching for a scapegoats to take the responsibility for the treatment of Babitsky. Lukin said that he fears that is a bad sign.
"Unfortunately the possibility that he's not of this world anymore is quite high. I don't understand the statements of a series of officials saying that he is alive, that they know for sure that he's alive but don't know where he is. Since those are obviously contradictory theses. If they have started looking for guilty parties it means that they have begun to understand that things are really bad. Losing such prestige, losing face like that as a democratic country."
Government officials continue to say that Babitsky went voluntarily to the Chechens and that he is alive and well. Putin said yesterday during a call-in program organized by a Russian newspaper ("Komsomolskaya Pravda") that a videotape of Babitsky that aired on television Wednesday proves he is alive. There is no way of knowing, however, when that tape was made.
Putin told ORT television this week that he considers a free press to be the basis of democratic reforms. But in the same interview he also issued what sounded like a threat. He said "whoever humiliates [Russia] won't live three days."