For the nearly sixty years that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast its programs in Russian, successive Kremlin governments—with the sole exception of that of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s only democratically elected president—have sought to silence its voice. Soviet leaders attempted to jam its signals and infiltrate its Munich headquarters with KGB operatives. Vladimir Putin, soon after coming to power, rescinded President Yeltsin’s decree granting Radio Liberty the right to operate a Moscow bureau. Last year, then President Dmitri Medvedev signed a law (which takes full effect this November) prohibiting foreign entities from owning radio stations in Russia.
Yet, in the end, it was not the Kremlin, but the US itself that effectively pulled the plug on the legendary institution. Last week, the American managers of Radio Liberty abruptly dismissed more than 80 percent of the station’s journalists and editorial staff in Moscow. Many had worked there for years, building its reputation as a leading source of professional and uncensored news and analysis for its Russian listeners. The message from RFE/RL President Steve Korn—“Welcome to the new Radio Liberty!”—had the distinctive sound of a mockery.
The official reason for mass layoffs was “a re-think of strategy” necessitated by the new law—which, incidentally, never saw any public pushback from the US government (just as there was no US pushback to the Kremlin’s “request” to cease the work of USAID in Russia). “I did not get an impression that the top leaders of Radio Liberty were terribly upset about the loss of medium-wave broadcasts,” recalls Yelena Rykovtseva, the now former journalist for the station. “They did not particularly value the broadcasts. They believed that radio … is being listened to by older and poorer audiences.” According to the latest figures from the market research company TNS, Radio Liberty’s daily broadcast audience in Moscow exceeds 100,000 people.
In any case, the new restrictions only force Radio Liberty to end its medium-wave broadcasts, and do not in any way affect its short-wave or Web-based operations—which raises the question about the true motive for the breakup of one of Russia’s last independent media teams.
“The entire KGB and FSB, all the ideological departments of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union … all the [Putin propagandists] Pushkovs, Leontievs, Mamontovs, and Shevchenkos could not cause such damage to the prestige of the United States in Russia as the unknown American bureaucrats who have, in a flash, put the entire Moscow office of Radio Liberty under the knife,” asserted writer and journalist Viktor Shenderovich, bewildered at “the very idea that you can simply replace the personnel at Radio Liberty … as if it were McDonald’s.”
“It is very difficult to look at what is happening at Radio Liberty: a wonderful, courageous, and professional team is being destroyed,” echoed opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov. “It is a celebration for the enemies of freedom in Russia, a blow to the already strangled freedom of speech. Such is this ludicrous ‘reset.’”
It is indeed difficult to brush off the feeling that signals from the Obama administration on human rights in Russia—be it the preposterous “congratulations” on Putin’s fraudulent election victory, firm opposition to the Magnitsky Act, a quick compliance on pulling out USAID, or the latest “re-thinking” at Radio Liberty—form a single pattern of “resetting” relations with Putin’s authoritarian regime at the expense of the Russian people, including the tens of thousands of protesters who have been coming to the streets to demand political reforms.
Many US administrations—of both parties—have ignored the “inconvenient” issues of human rights for the sake of short-term deals with repressive governments. But few have done it as brazenly as this one.
Photo Credit: Krokodyl