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Caucasus: U.S. Says New North Caucasus Broadcasts May Hurt Peace Efforts

RFE/RL was supposed to begin broadcasts to the North Caucasus today in the region's three indigenous languages -- Avar, Chechen, and Circassian. But at the last minute, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush persuaded the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees RFE/RL, to postpone the broadcasts. The administration says they might hinder efforts to end the fighting in Chechnya.

Washington, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government says it believes that any RFE/RL broadcasts to the North Caucasus region in the indigenous languages could impede efforts to start peace talks between Russia and Chechen rebel leaders.

The broadcasts in Avar, Chechen, and Circassian were to have begun today. But on Tuesday (26 February) night in Washington, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) decided to postpone the inaugural transmissions for an unspecified period.

Yesterday, the BBG's chairman, Marc Nathanson, told RFE/RL that unspecified "complexities" in the region prompted it to call for the postponement.

"The board met with the [U.S.] administration, and the administration presented some new complexities involving the Chechen situation, and the board thought it was the best interest to see how these work out before proceeding. And that was our decision. But in general, the board is in favor of these broadcasts continuing, but we're just suspending them temporarily till we see how the situation works out."

Nathanson said he could not disclose what these complexities are, but he said that officials of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush told BBG members that the broadcasts should be delayed for what he called "security issues."

"No, they have to do with security issues that we were briefed on in a confidential briefing session, but we believe they are serious and we believe that they are real."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters of the concerns felt by the Bush administration.

"We have felt that perhaps broadcasts in these local languages would have -- could be counterproductive to the overall effort to get a dialogue started in Chechnya to try to help move that situation toward a political solution. We've made absolutely clear, I think, on a policy point of view that we believe that there is -- the only way to solve the problems there is a political solution. We want to make sure that everything we do contributes to that goal and doesn't detract from it."

Neither Boucher nor Nathanson could say how long the broadcasts would be delayed. But Nathanson says he fully supports broadcasting to the North Caucasus in its indigenous languages, and that he expects the postponement to be brief.

"No, I don't have a specific date [for the start of the North Caucasus Service], but I think it'll be a short time, and the board is very anxious to begin and, as I say, is supportive of this broadcasting. But there are some new issues that we were made aware of, so we've decided to delay the broadcasts to the North Caucasus temporarily."

RFE/RL is a private, international broadcasting service to Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and now Afghanistan. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the BBG. The broadcasting service to the North Caucasus was mandated by Congress in late 2000 and funded last autumn.

The Bush administration's unease about RFE/RL's broadcasts in indigenous languages to the North Caucasus region is not new. More than two months ago, on 21 December, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wrote a letter to Nathanson in which he expressed concern about how the broadcasts might "affect our ability to engage the Russians and Chechens in promoting a settlement to the conflict," as he put it.

But by that time, the U.S. Congress already had authorized the North Caucasus broadcasts and had provided the funding for them. So RFE/RL decided to proceed with the broadcasts until the BBG's decision on 26 February.

RFE/RL President Thomas Dine is expressing disappointment with the postponement of the broadcasting.

"I am disappointed in the delay in our broadcasting in the three languages to the North Caucasus. However, we will continue to report about actions, news developments, in this particular sensitive area of Russia. And secondly, the delay decision will soon go away, and I look forward very much to us broadcasting in [the] Avar, Chechen, and Circassian languages in the next several weeks."

Like Boucher and Nathanson, Dine says he does not know how long the postponement might last, but he said he expects it will not last long.