The Russia Journal’s assistant editor’s interview with Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin’s official spokesman on the war in Chechnya.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky is one of those figures on the Russian political scene who seems to know how to stay afloat as others come and go around him. A former diplomat, he was press secretary to Boris Yeltsin before doing a stint as a deputy to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Now he is back on the Kremlin team as official spokesman on the war in Chechnya. He spoke about one aspect of this war – the battle for information.
RJ: What's your main job as Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya?
SY: To provide information reflecting state interests and create a single channel for information flows. We've learned now to follow the fundamental principles any country uses during operations of this scale.
First, there must be a limited number of people providing the news and not everyone with their own vision of things. What I mean here is all the various government bodies each following their own policy and interests and no one coordinating information with the state line and interests. That was a problem during the first Chechen war.
Relations with the various ministries are fine now – I was worried about the security ministries since so much of the load is on them, but they've understood now that my job is to make sure that what they're doing in Chechnya is accepted by world public opinion and especially by Russian public opinion.
RJ: So, the Russian public is particularly important for you?
SY: It's our top priority. Chechnya is not about foreign policy issues but about restoring constitutional order, rights and freedoms.
RJ: Do you also target the Chechen public?
SY: Much less. The information going into Chechnya mostly goes through [special presidential representative in Chechnya] Nikolai Koshman and the media ministry. They've set up the Free Chechnya newspaper and radio station. More than half of Chechen territory now receives [Russian state-controlled TV channels] ORT and RTR, which is very important.
RJ: And does the Chechen side put up any "information resistance?"
SY: Back in January, February, when I first went to Chechnya, there was no Russian television getting through. You can have an information vacuum just as you have a vacuum in politics. The separatists had their information channels and the "rumor machine" was working away full speed in Chechnya. This is one of the obstacles to restoring normal life there. But when there's information getting through from the federal side, the rumor machine doesn't work nearly so effectively.
RJ: And you're certain it's all just rumors at work down there?
SY: It's deliberate and methodical work, carried out also in the refugee camps in Ingushetia. When international observers or foreign journalists go there, they always shoot the same posters, the same women. There's a payment system for their services. Just recently, the chief editor of the underground newspaper Ichkeria was detained as he was heading to the refugee camps. He had a large sum in dollars, a cassette and issues of his paper. This was just before [former Justice Minister] Pavel Krashenninikov met with Kazbek Makhashov.
RJ: What kind of information do you counter this with?
SY: One of the main myths we have to fight is the myth that the Russians will sign a Khasavyurt agreement version II and then pull out, leaving those who cooperated with the federal authorities to be liquidated. [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov said in an interview that, "We won't waste words with traitors, they'll be taken into a field and shot." This has an impact, people remember how the last campaign ended. A lot of Chechens were abandoned to their fate then, and we have to work constantly to counter this foreboding this time.
RJ: Rumors of Russian atrocities – rapes, murders, looting – also have an impact, as does the idea that Russians simply want to exterminate the Chechens.
SY: This will change only with time, only when people see they are being treated as fellow citizens and not as pariahs. Small things will change this; the Emergency Situations Ministry hospital working in Grozny, for example, or the conversation I had a few days ago with a Chechen journalist who said how in some villages in the south of Chechnya, where he had been, doctors and teachers were being paid for the first time in the last three to four years. It's important that people realize the Russians haven't come to punish them, but to put an end to terrorism. It's no coincidence that 400,000 people left Chechnya under Maskhadov.
Acts of barbarity against civilians must be stopped, and the job must be done openly. Criminal charges have been brought in 61 cases. There are also 10 cases considered serious crimes, which are currently under investigation.
Unfortunately, Russian soldiers also feel the temptation to get revenge after seeing friends, comrades with their throats cut or signs of torture, and no amount of educational work amongst them will completely extinguish those feelings.
RJ: But you have to make a distinction between bandits and civilians.
SY: That distinction is often virtually imperceptible. Some of the rebels are living what looks like civilian life and committing attacks all the while. This is all a factor in those crimes that are being investigated by the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office. But you can only win people's trust by proving that evil will be punished and that much good is being done to try and return people to normal life. But all this will take years.
RJ: Do you see any problems with Western journalists?
SY: Some journalists work on the principle of a one way street, especially the French. Some journalists are writing about Chechnya without even having gone there. Certainly, the Western media doesn't see anything in Chechnya through the prism of Russia's national interests. Are many in the world interested in seeing Russia overcome its problems, become a normal democratic country and a competitor? If we sort things out in Chechnya, this will increase our influence throughout the Caucasus, in the Caspian region and Central Asia.
RJ: You talk of the distinction between civilians and rebel fighters, but what about the women, children, old people who are paying the price now? Where do we draw the line between national interests and the value of a human life?
SY: That's an eternal question. But if we hadn't done anything, the price in human lives would have been greater still.