Casus Belli: The Russian State and Media in Public Discourse during the Chechen Wars
Written by Aleksander Bracken
The use of foreign policy to serve domestic policy is a time-honoured tactic of Great Powers. In 1904, the Russian Imperial Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Plehfve advised Tsar Nicholas II that Russia needed a “small victorious war” to avert the revolution that he saw as imminent. This war became the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, a short but far from victorious conflict that exacerbated domestic tensions to the point of revolution. Ninety years later, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Oleg Lobov, advised President Boris Yeltsin that a “small victorious war” would help secure votes for the 1996 election. This war was to be fought in Chechnya, a rebellious Federal Republic whose ethnic population had grievances with the Russians that went as far back as the nineteenth century. As with the Russo-Japanese War, Lobov’s plan backfired and the First Chechen War nearly destroyed Yeltsin’s standing with the Russian people.
These examples from Russian history demonstrate that war and domestic politics are closely connected. Though wars like the Russo-Japanese and the First Chechen wars envisioned to serve a political purpose, a compelling case needed to be made to the population to justify the sacrifice of young men’s lives. This is true in both free and totalitarian states, though the degree to which the war has to be justified often depends on how much public opinion actually matters. The public nonetheless engages with the pro-war narrative in some capacity and is therefore in dialogue with the state. The medium of this dialogue is most often the media. Sociologist Max Weber argued that, “to an outstanding degree, politics today is in fact conducted in public by means of the spoken or written word,” and “the journalist is nowadays the most important representative of the demagogue species.” Mass media, therefore, has a significant impact on how the public perceives state rhetoric and ultimately has an influence over whether they agree with it or not. Considering the media’s importance in public discourse, this paper will analyze the Russian media during the First and Second Chechen Wars and how it portrayed official state rhetoric, wartime reporting and the opinions of journalists in editorials and opinion pieces.
This paper will be guided by several conceptual frameworks. First, political scientists Olga Malinkina and Douglas McLeod employed political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld’s ‘Political Contest Model’ in their study of the Izvestia newspaper’s coverage of the Soviet Afghan and First Chechen Wars. In this model, the news media is engaged in a struggle with the state for political control. The authorities’ degree of control over the political environment determines whether the news media will play an independent role in reporting on a conflict. In this framework, the presence of a mass media that is critical towards state rhetoric becomes a metric for judging the state’s strength or weakness in the political space. Second, in her study of ethics and truth telling in Soviet and post-Soviet media, cultural anthropologist Natalia Roudakova drew on philosopher Michel Foucault’s use of the ancient Greek act of “parrhesia” in modern political discourse: the practice of frank and courageous speech delivered at the risk of angering a more powerful interlocutor. According to Foucault, this act is ethical because it is based in conviction and is political because it is criticism form a less powerful position. When one uses parrhesia, they are trying to bring ethics back into politics by speaking truth to power. The practice of parrhesia, Foucault suggests, is at the core of Western political thought.
Working with these conceptual frameworks, this paper will use the Chechen Wars as cases of the struggle for power in the post-Soviet political space between the state and the media. The bulk of this article will engage in a media analysis, which will compare state rhetoric to the reactions of the post-Soviet press. This paper will draw on secondary literature to establish a frame of reference for the media analysis by examining the changes in Russian media and key developments in the conflicts. A significant portion of the historiography section will be examining media and rhetoric in the Soviet Afghan war. This conflict is relevant to the discussion because parallels can be drawn between the Soviet Afghan War and the First Chechen War (the decision-making apparatus, the nature of warfare, etc.). Moreover, the conflict was a turning point in Soviet history as it was a key driver of reforms (glasnost and perestroika) which precipitated the opening of Soviet public discourse. Ultimately, this paper will argue that the post-Soviet state held less power in the Russian political space during the First Chechen War as the media fervently criticized the official narrative by engaging in parrhesia. But in the Second Chechen war, the state gained considerably more power in the political space and therefore the media was less free to criticize the official narrative.
The Soviet Afghan War
Before discussing the Chechen wars, it is necessary to understand the changes in mass media during the late Soviet period as they relate to the war in Afghanistan. Before the glasnost (openness) reform, all media in the Soviet Union was centralized by the Communist leadership and no open criticism of government policy was permissible. An old Soviet dissent joke conveyed the population’s cynical attitude towards Soviet news: “There is no izvestia (news) in Pravda and no Pravda (truth) in Izvestia.” Despite censorship, however, Soviet journalists infused truth and ethics into their reporting as best they could. Although they could not openly criticize the government, dissident journalists wrote publications like ocherks: a feature story or essay which used moral tales to convey real events. Though this medium, the dissident intelligentsia could speak truth to power. Although on the surface it appeared as though the Soviet government had full control of the narrative, there existed an underlying dissident counter narrative. This was the media landscape when the USSR decided to invade Afghanistan. The official reason for the invasion was that the USSR had “satisfied” the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan’s request for military aid. The decision to invade was an entirely secretive process made by a handful of reactionary hardliners: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Suslov. Envisioned as a short operation to prop up a failing communist regime, it quickly became a counterinsurgency war against the Mujahideen, a radical Islamic militant coalition funded by foreign governments such as the USA. Although the primary military objectives had been met within the first couple of months after the invasion, the Afghan war would continue for another nine years.
Official media coverage in the first half of the Afghan war was vague and heavily propagandized. Most news stories depicted the “hearts and minds” of the Soviet Union: building schools, roads, educating peasants, etc. Critique of the official narrative existed, but only through informal channels such as illegal samizdat publishings or embedded in ocherks. For example, a Nizhny Novgorod journalist Inna Rudenko wrote an ocherk titled “Duty” in the early 1980’s, where she acknowledged the full magnitude of the war and demanded that authorities take responsibility for the men mutilated by the conflict. Despite the presence of a counternarrative, however, the state’s control over public discourse gave it power over the Soviet political space.
The war dragged on until the cost in both lives and resources became unsustainable. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev identified that Afghanistan was one of the many issues plaguing the Soviet system that could no longer be ignored. One of the cornerstones of Gorbachev’s reform policy was glasnost, which aimed to invite the participation of citizens in the discussion of complex and controversial topics in order to find a solution. This top-down and state-controlled policy brought about a new spirit of public criticism and access to information. Though truth was beginning to permeate public discourse, the Soviet media was finding it difficult to speak openly. According to Mark Galeotti, the media landscape became a “locus for another rumbling guerrilla war,” where reformists and conservatives in media censorship organs fought over what degree of critique was considered to be acceptable. All the while, the dissident tradition was beginning to play a more active role in public discourse. The result was an absence of balanced, accurate and factual information that reached the Soviet Public.
Afghanistan was an instigator for change in the acceptable boundaries of public discourse. The top down nature of media liberalization incited a struggle between free expression and Soviet orthodoxy in the mass media. Through Wolfsfeld’s model, this struggle can be interpreted as a contest for power between the state and the media in the political space. Although the state relinquished some of its power to invite new ideas to fix the system, they were hesitant to give the media full agency to engage in parrhesia. The next conflict in Russia would see the media play a more independent role from the start.
The First Chechen War
While the journalistic profession was more or less freed from Soviet constraints, the mass media (as with many aspects of post-Soviet Russia) did not simply transition to liberalism after the collapse of the USSR. The Soviet government passed a law on press freedom in the summer of 1990 that forbade media censorship and removed the state monopoly on media ownership. But unlike many post-Communist states, the Russian Federation did not pass any freedom of information laws or EU mandated media regulations after the Union collapsed. Thus, press freedom existed in a legal grey area. Economic factors also hampered press freedom as the financial turmoil of the early 1990s saw most small, independent newspapers go bankrupt. Moreover, the state-owned newspapers would fall victim to the loans for shares scheme of 1995, where majority stakes in newspapers such as Pravda and Izvestia were sold to Russian oligarchs.
What occurred during the 1990’s, according to Roudakova, was journalism’s descent into “political prostitution.” Just as the First Chechen War was ramping up, commercial and political interests were able to purchase newspaper column inches or television airtime to promote themselves and attack their enemies without acknowledging sponsorship. According to Kotkin, the Russian mass media became confusing as these “infomercials camouflaged as reporting” existed alongside bona fide reporting on Chechnya and corruption. Therefore, the ethical nature of post-Soviet reporting was a concern, as unlike in the Soviet period, the reader was not necessarily aware of what the biases in the media were. Nevertheless, I would argue that despite this “political prostitution,” the media was still speaking a version of the truth whether if it was based in conviction or not. Hence, the media still played a significant role in public discourse. In Chechnya, war correspondents were able to relay the horrors of war to the people at home to an unprecedented degree in Russian history. With this newfound freedom, journalists openly defied the official narrative.
As with the Soviet-Afghan war, the First Chechen war was a reaction to circumstance on Russia’s periphery. As ethnographer Emil Pain said, “Russia in general got drawn into conflicts. First there were actions, then decisions.” Chechnya was an autonomous region within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and therefore became a part of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the USSR. However, many Chechens were convinced that their future lay outside the Russian Federation. One of these people was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet General and Chechen nationalist who seized power from the Communist Party bosses in 1991. After a successful coup d’état, Dudayev cemented his political legitimacy through elections (that were likely fixed) and declared Chechnya’s independence. Dudayev’s legitimacy, however, sat on a shaky foundation as internal opposition to his regime grew in years following the coup. Meanwhile the Kremlin, focused on larger matters, held its tongue until the situation in Chechnya exacerbated tensions. For instance, crime had become rampant in Chechnya and it was beginning to spill into the Russian center. As Boris Yeltsin writes in his memoirs, a “black hole of criminality had opened within Russia.” Intermixed with a fair degree of anti-Caucasus discrimination, this narrative was picked up by radical nationalist politicians such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose parliamentary victory in 1993 had shifted political discourse to the right. Alongside the rise in crime was an increasing dose of Russian chauvinism and hubris about not wanting to appear weak in the face of secessionist threat.
The period of 1991-94, then, was a time of “antagonistic coexistence between Chechnya and Russia.” But according to journalists Charlotta Gall and Thomas De Waal, what pushed the government over the edge was a shift in the balance of power of internal Kremlin politics that occurred behind closed doors. Increasingly, Yeltsin turned to hawkish advisors who convinced him that a “small victorious war” against the “mafioso Chechens” would go over well with the electorate and boost his ratings before the 1996 presidential elections. As with the war in Afghanistan, the decision to invade Chechnya was made by a handful of men in secret. Justice Minister Valentin Kalmykov (the only cabinet minister to resign over the Chechen War) saw the decision-making process as a “purely Soviet affair.” Russian military intervention began in late October 1994 when the Kremlin attempted to overthrow Dudayev with the “time honoured tactic” of dealing with “troublesome peripheries:” funding and supplying internal opposition as a front for Great Power intervention. Once that failed, the army was deployed in Chechnya on the 11th of December. However, Russia’s military intervention was predicated on the “exceptionally dear and dangerous illusion” about the might of the army, its degree of training and combat readiness, and would therefore suffer high losses in the early stages in the conflict. This issue was exacerbated by the failed 1995 New Year’s Day attack on Grozny. To offset mounting Russian casualties, the air force and artillery corps embarked on an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Chechen towns and cities, killing both rebel forces and Chechen civilians alike.
The official line touted by Yeltsin and his cabinet to justify mass military intervention was that the Russian army was deployed to Chechnya to restore Constitutional order. In a statement to the Russian people on 11 December 1994, Yeltsin maintained that although a political solution was the preferable method, military intervention was necessary to prevent the “full-scale civil war” in the Chechen republic that was inhibiting the “free expression of the Chechen people’s will.” The Kremlin promised that Constitutional law would be observed by the Russian armed forces and that violence against the civilian population would not be tolerated. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev evoked the “criminality” of Chechens by promising that once the “gangster formations” (i.e. Dudayev’s rebels) were disarmed, the people of Chechnya would receive the opportunity to “determine their future” just as other members of the Federation had done. Finally, the government established the Temporary Information Center (TIC) to control the flow of information leaving the front. This attempt by the Kremlin to control the narrative was accompanied by a warning for journalists the leave Chechnya as their “safety could not be guaranteed.” There was some support for the war among the population and journalists. In a December 1994 survey by Levada, thirty percent of people polled claimed to have wanted decisive measures in Chechnya; according to the article most of these people were supporters of right-wing nationalist parties such as Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats. Journalists who supported the war, or who at least did not openly criticize it, were less inclined to favour the official rhetoric about constitutional order and more the concrete factors that had exacerbated the Chechen situation. For example, journalist Mikhail Leontyev claimed that Russia was in fact justified in intervening because Chechnya was “[spewing] unlimited numbers of Gangsters into Russia.”
Nevertheless, it appeared as though most Russian citizens, many Russian politicians and the majority of Russian journalists opposed the War in Chechnya. The aforementioned Levada survey found that thirty-six percent of people polled wanted a peaceful solution in Chechnya while twenty-three percent desired a withdrawal of Russian troops. The secret nature of the decision-making mechanism was criticized by journalist Teimuraz Mamaladze when he denounced the “Kremlin Secret Makers” who, as with the Afghan War fifteen years prior, had decided to send the country to war behind closed doors. Some of the most vocal opposition to the Kremlin’s policy were in the government itself. Former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar spoke out against the invasion as he believed that the war would become a long and costly burden on the economy. Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko, criticized Yeltsin’s competency as a leader and called for the immediate withdrawal of troops. This dissension in the ranks was showcased by the Russian press and ultimately undermined the authority of the state.
The information disseminated by official sources was quickly discovered to be falsified. A Nezavisimaya gazeta correspondent remarked that the TIC did not have any information on how many servicemen, let alone civilians, were being killed. The affair appeared to be a deliberate measure to confuse “inquisitive citizens and pushy journalists” looking for information. Stories also surfaced of Russian soldiers firing on journalists documenting the fighting, showing that the army could not even protect journalists from their own troops. Perhaps the biggest lie perpetuated by official government sources was about how the war was being conducted. Human rights monitor Sergei Kovalyov called attention to the Russian forces bombarding Grozny with “criminally indiscriminate fire” and argued that the constant assertion by the military and government press service about “pinpoint strikes” against purely military targets was a “cynical lie.” Journalist Maria Eismont seconded Kovalyov’s position by remarking that nothing was off the target list for Russian artillery and air power. Russian aircrafts were not only shooting at “illegal gangster formations” but also at groups of refugees.
The responses from the media to the Kremlin’s official rhetoric and conduct of the war reveal that the First Chechen War began as a public relations nightmare. Although the press deemed some of the Kremlin’s justifications for war to be legitimate, most of the news media, intelligentsia and several politicians openly criticized the state. The balance of power in the political space appeared to be in favour of the media as the state seemed to have no control over the narrative. In the words of journalist Sergei Stepashin, the “Russian administration had lost the information war.”
Neither the army’s success in combat nor the state’s position in public discourse would improve as the war continued. After practically leveling Grozny, the Russian army finally seized the Chechen capital. However, the rebels merely retreated to the surrounding foothills and, like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, fought a brutal guerrilla war. The Kremlin continued to pump men and material into Chechnya but could not achieve a significant military victory. With the conflict beginning to stagnate, the Chechens turned to unorthodox tactics. On 14 June 1995, Chechen Field Commander Shamil Basayev led a small force of insurgents across the Daghestani border into the town of Budyonnovsk and took two thousand people hostage in a maternity hospital. After the Russian army failed to storm the hospital, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin negotiated the release of the hostages in exchange for an immediate ceasefire. The negotiations, which occurred over the telephone, were broadcast live on Russian television.
The Kremlin refused to label the attack as an act of “Political Terror” and claimed that Budyonnovsk was merely “an act of intimidation, revenge – anything you like except political terrorism.” In an attempt to delegitimize Basayev’s demands, the official rhetoric painted Budyonnovsk as just another example of Chechen “criminality.” The media, however, saw the event in a different way. Journalist Svetlana Alekseyeva saw through the Kremlin’s rhetoric and claimed that Basayev’s militants were not mere criminals, but rather terrorists executing a “carefully organized political act.” Furthermore, the Duma made its anti-war stance even clearer during the events of Budyonnovsk. On 16 June, a motion for Yeltsin’s impeachment gained 150 votes (but failed to meet the required 226) while a vote of no confidence against Chernomyrdin passed. While the Kremlin tried to downplay the political nature of Budyonnovsk, the media correctly identified the attack for what it was. Hence, the media gained the initiative in public discourse and continued to be the stronger player in the political space. What the Russian people were not aware of at the time was that Budyonnovsk was merely the first of many terrorist attacks by Chechen separatists. The next time an attack like this occurred, the government would use it to their advantage in justifying the Second Chechen War.
Before the Second Chechen War could begin, the First one had to end. The ceasefire after Budyonnovsk was not observed by either side and hostilities continued. But as the 1996 election drew near, Yeltsin realized that a peace settlement was necessary to boost his abysmally low ratings. The short victorious war that was supposed to boost Yeltsin’s ratings had done the opposite. By March 1996, opinion polls revealed that most of the population (52 percent) was in favour of an unconditional pullout of Russian forces from Chechnya. The Khasavyurt peace accords were signed on 30 August 1996 and both sides agreed to defer the question of Chechnya’s independence to 2001. Although Yeltsin still held his convictions about Chechnya, he was aware that everyone had grown tired of war and desired peace. The media shared this feeling: although the “Chechen Question” had not been solved, Maria Eismont said that it was sufficient for the people to hear from Lebed the statement: “War is over, that’s all, we fought enough.”
This response is indicative of the fact that overall, the First Chechen War was extremely unpopular. In large part, this was because of how it was presented to the Russian people. Like with Afghanistan, the decision to invade was made by a handful of men in utter secrecy and the justifications for the conflict rested on shaky foundations. Unlike Afghanistan, this secrecy dissipated almost immediately after hostilities began as the media had unprecedented access to frontline combat. With this access and media censorship removed, the press had free reign to engage in parrhesia. This ultimately had an impact on the Kremlin’s desire for a peace settlement because in 1996 popular approval equaled votes. Thus, as Malinkina and McLeod argue, the Russian media played a role in keeping the Afghan and Chechen conflicts from being comparable in length. By looking at the media during the First Chechen War through Wolfsfeld’s model, the lack of control over information can be interpreted as the weakness of the state in the political space. While the state lost control over the narrative in the First Chechen War, it would prove to be more successful in controlling the narrative and justifying hostilities in the Second.
The Second Chechen War
What occurred in Chechnya between signing of the Khasavyurt accords and the recommencement of hostilities was less of a peace than an absence of war. Following Dudayev’s death in 1996 (at the hands of Russian guided missiles), the Chechen rebellion’s frail cohesion fragmented and the movement edged closer towards radical Islam. Field commanders such as Shamil Basayev grabbed power, took de facto control of local governance, and began Islamicizing Chechen separatist politics. Although Islam had always been the dominant religion in Chechnya, the Chechen struggle for independence in the early 1990’s was centered around building an independent, secular state. However, the new radical leaders began to infuse the “Wahhabi creed” into the separatist movement by introducing the language, style and tactics of Islamic Terrorism that they observed in the Middle East. A number of foreign Islamic militants also entered Chechnya in the years following Khasavyurt. Furthermore, there was also a steep rise of kidnappings as abducting and ransoming Russians and foreigners became a profitable business in war-torn Chechnya. By 1999, the official number for those kidnapped stood at 560.
Whereas criminality was a key factor in the justification of the First Chechen War, the rise in radical Islamic terrorism in Chechnya would be played up by the Kremlin when justifying the Second Chechen War. Unlike in 1994, however, it would not be Russia who made the first move militarily, but Chechnya. In late August, Basayev led an incursion across the Chechen border into Dagestan and established a foothold in the borderlands. Discourse around Chechen aggression in Dagestan became Islamicized. For example, a Kommersant report on the incursion claimed that the “mujahideen” insurgent Basayev wanted to make Khasavyurt the capital of “an independent Islamic state.” However, the events that had the largest impact on both state rhetoric and public discourse occurred not in Dagestan but in the Russian capital, when on September 8th, 1999 a bomb destroyed an apartment building in Moscow. A second apartment building was bombed on September 13th. Killing over two hundred people, the attacks were classified as terrorist acts connected to Chechnya. Although the Chechen fighters never claimed responsibility for these attacks, the Kremlin used them to justify a second war in Chechnya with seemingly overwhelming popular backing.
Unlike the Budyonnovsk crisis, the Kremlin played up the terrorist nature of the attacks. After the second bombing in Moscow, Yeltsin claimed that terrorism had declared war on Russia, and that Russians were living in a time of rapidly-spreading terrorism. He assured the public that the authorities would respond to the terrorists’ challenge harshly, quickly and decisively. Unlike with Budyonnovsk, there was no ambiguity in the nature of the Moscow attacks: it was indisputably radical terrorist aggression. But Yeltsin would not lead the charge in this conflict. Instead, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the reins. In a September 14th speech to the Duma, Putin asserted that the Kremlin was, “treating the criminal groups’ actions as acts of international terrorism, and on that basis we are taking the necessary countermeasures.” Putin accused the “Chechen connection” of being behind the bombings, but stressed that military intervention in the region would be purely to eliminate terrorists in the region and would not kill innocent Chechens. He also blamed the Chechen government for being incapable of dealing with the terrorist situation, and argued that the army had no choice but to intervene. Finally, he stressed that unity within the government was crucial during the crisis: “There is no time for dissension among the authorities.”
Putin’s decisiveness was popular at a time of fear and uncertainty. According to Boris Yeltsin, crude and candid slogans such as mochit v’ sortire (wipe them out on their toilets) defined Putin’s strongman personality and made him very popular in Russia. Putin’s emphasis on unity helped to ensure that the Kremlin would have the government’s support in the upcoming conflict. The “nearly ecstatic” response by the Deputies to Putin’s 14 September speech portrayed a Duma that supported the renewal of hostilities. Russian senators also seemed impressed, as they all shared the same sentiment: “Now we feel confident that the government will make real efforts to fight terrorism.” Although the real political power of the Russian Federation’s lower houses is questionable, the support of the government was key to public perception. Moreover, the argument that the decision to go to war was made by “Kremlin secret makers” was harder to defend when the Prime Minister was making direct appeals to politicians.
Accompanying Putin’s strongman image and the government’s support of hostilities was a growing sense of fear in the Russian Federation about future terrorist attacks. A Kommersant report claimed that “all of Russia’s major regions” had begun preparing for acts of terrorism. Following the Moscow bombings, there was a growing sense in public discourse that the government, the general public and the intelligentsia were in agreement that decisive measures in the Caucasus were necessary and that the people were willing to give the Kremlin its blessing to carry out “any acts of retribution,” according to Aleksei Arbatov.
In reality, support for hostilities was not unanimous. Although Duma Deputy Grigory Yavlinsky supported the heightened security measures taken to prevent future attacks, he warned against a ground operation in Chechnya as he foresaw “huge losses” on the Russian side in the coming conflict. Human rights monitor Sergei Kovalyov, a prominent dissident of the First Chechen War, admitted that although the trail of bombings probably did lead to Chechnya, a new war was likely to devolve into another brutal guerilla conflict. Only a few weeks into the Second Chechen War, Kovalyov noted that the army’s targets had questionable strategic importance and that the strikes were leading to civilian casualties. Despite the presence of criticism, it appeared as though the state had significantly more control over the narrative of the Second Chechen War than they did over the First. Whereas Yeltsin’s justifications in 1994 lacked gravity and were openly contested, Putin’s message was clear, consistent and spoke to a real fear of terrorism and desire for retribution. Therefore, the state appeared to have much more power in the political space than it did several years prior. Although public discourse was open for critics to speak truth to power, their message did not directly denounce the state in the same way as it did in the beginning of the First Chechen War.
Despite the Second Chechen war having been “rebranded” as a war on terror, military strategy was identical to the First Chechen War in its execution and larger its scale. In response to Basayev’s incursion, the Russian air force had already begun bombing Grozny. A week later 120,000 troops crossed the border and, learning from their mistakes, did not attempt a storming of Grozny. Instead, they began indiscriminately bombing and shelling the city. Although the Kremlin denied the magnitude of operations and refuted claims that war crimes were being committed, Human Rights Watch estimated that between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians died in the first nine months of the Second Chechen War.
The Kremlin was more successful at perpetuating this myth because the only way for journalists to visit the front was through press tours organized by the Russian army. Perhaps because of this control over information, the media’s coverage of the war was much more supportive of the “official” interpretation of events. Journalist Nikolai Ulyanov claimed that Putin’s conduct of the war was much more gentlemanly than his predecessor’s because it was being waged exclusively against the terrorists and avoided collateral damage by the use of “pinpoint strikes” (a line touted by the Kremlin in 1995 that was refuted almost immediately by journalists). Moreover, Putin’s Hearts and Minds campaign in Chechnya was a supposed success, as Chechens were allegedly receiving housing, humanitarian aid and health care. While public discourse appeared to be more supportive of the official narrative, there was also a healthy dose of vengeance intermixed with ignorance about military operations. A Novye Izvestia survey showed that nearly half of the population (49%) supported the bombing attacks on Chechnya in retaliation for terrorist acts in Russian cities.
Despite the fact that public discourse seemed to favour state rhetoric, critics of the conflict were not entirely absent. Travelling illegally to Chechnya in late 1999, journalist Anna Politkovskaya published her experiences in her 2001 book A Dirty War. According to her, the alleged “pinpoint strikes” and efforts to avoid civilian casualties were blatant lies as Russian pilots were alleged to have “deliberately fired on the Rostov Baku Highway when refugees were fleeing along it from the war zone.” The Hearts and Minds campaign was also a fallacy, as villagers were not receiving the prefabricated houses that Putin had promised and there was not the “faintest trace” of humanitarian aid to be found in refugee camps. Moreover, she did not buy into Putin’s strongman persona. Instead of a leader that was promising to “wipe the bandits after they’re cornered in the shithouse,” she wanted a Putin that would help the people who were dying in the bombardments. In her candid reporting on the Second Chechen war, Politkovskaya spoke about the war in a way which was apparently absent from the mass media.
Overall, the political space during the Second Chechen War seemed to favour the state much more than it had in the First. The strong message coming from a decisive leader, accompanied by more effective controls over the media garnered a significant amount of support for the war from the population, government and media. Nevertheless, critics of the war still existed and engaged in parrhesia. However, something must be said about the way that this critical message was being conveyed: Politkovskaya’s book was published two years after the events and therefore lacks the immediacy and prominence in the public sphere that the critical articles of the First Chechen War had. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to claim that the media landscape was returning to Soviet levels in the late 1990’s: A Dirty War was in no way a samizdat publication, nor was its message shrouded in moralism like in an ocherk. Although present, parrhesia was not as openly practiced in 1999-2000 and the state was therefore the more powerful force in the political space.
Afterword and Conclusion
Considering Wolfsfeld’s Political Contest model and Foucault’s theory of parrhesia, the power of the state in the political space can be determined by the ability of news media to speak truth to power in the post-Soviet press. Whereas dissent of the Soviet War in Afghanistan only became public in the latter half of the conflict, the media was able to openly criticize the First Chechen War from its outset and journalists attacked the official narrative by exposing the truths of the conflict. This lack of control over public discourse translated into a lack of control in the political space. In the Second Chechen war, despite the presence of criticism, the state presented a more compelling narrative and projected more power over both public discourse the political space.
The mass military campaign in Chechnya would last until the spring of 2000, when operations would be transferred over to the FSB and special forces. Although counterinsurgency operations would last until 2009, Putin was able to achieve what his predecessor failed to and turned the Chechen War into a police action. This apparent success had a significant impact on Putin’s legitimacy. On 26 March 2000, he would be elected the President of the Russian Federation with 52.9 percent of the vote. It appears as though Putin achieved the long standing Russian foreign policy goal of waging a “short victorious war” to whip up popular support. Russia’s war on terror would not end in 2000. The following decade saw more frequent and intense crises in Russian cities: for example, the 2002 Moscow Theater Crisis and the 2004 Beslan School siege, to name a few. After the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York, Putin would relate events in Russia and his military policy to the global war on terror, claiming that the attacks were not by Chechen separatists, but by international Islamic terrorists. However, historian Stephen Lovell argues that, despite the Islamic appearance, these attacks were political acts at their core with the intent of obtaining Chechnya’s independence from the Federation. Nevertheless, these attacks were used to further justify military operations in Chechnya.
The Russian media would also begin to change under Putin as he moved Russia’s liberal democracy closer towards a managed, authoritarian state. Unlike in totalitarianism, Roudakova argues, authoritarian leaders do not completely outlaw dissent and criticism, but rather encourage the “depoliticization” of public discourse through diversion and confusion perpetrated by the mass media. As a result, investigative journalism began to die out, quite literally. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006; although it is not clear exactly by whom or why, it has been argued that it is in relation to her candid reporting on Chechnya. With a counterinsurgency war dragging on for years and a steady decline in liberalism, open public discourse in Russia took a major hit in the 2000’s.
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