THE chill wind blowing out of Russia since extreme nationalists made gains in recent elections has made some United States officials rethink plans to largely eliminate Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), the two anticommunist stations Americans have used to beam information over the Iron Curtain for 40 years.
Congress is scheduled to debate, as the first item on its agenda when it returns Jan. 23 from vacation, the Clinton administration's plan to chop the two stations' budget from $250 million to $75 million in two years and to make them a part of the Voice of America (VOA), the government's broadcasting arm for overseas.
However, an aide to a prominent senator said that the unsettling nationalist trend in the Russian election ``strengthened'' the senator's view that RFE and RL continue to be important institutions that should remain independent of the VOA: ``He believes that things are simply not finished in Russia,'' the aide says.
``The Russian election results certainly gave us cause to think what kind of broadcast strategies are correct for a period such as this,'' says Joseph Duffy, director of the US Information Agency (USIA), which administers the VOA.
He said that plans to slash nearly three-fourths of the RFE and RL budget might remain in place, but added that what was needed was to reverse the role of RFE and RL. ``Most of the cold war, RFE and RL tried to stir up dissent, sometimes unwittingly on ethnic lines,'' he said in an interview. ``Now our tactic is conflict resolution. The object is civility.''
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency after World War II as ``surrogate radios'' that substituted for local news stations in communist countries of Eastern Europe and Russia that were under censorship. By the 1970s and '80s, Congress was openly funding the stations, which are based in Munich and employ thousands of researchers and native speakers of European languages. Polish and Czechoslovak Presidents Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel have said RFE greatly helped their struggles to overthrow communist rule in the 1980s.
But a senior US official says ``President Clinton was elected on domestic issues and promised to reduce spending. The world has changed. The Berlin Wall fell. There is a place to promote democracy, but we have to get back to the national interests. We have not got the resources to do everything everywhere.''
An administration team, including a National Security Council staffer, did a ``bottom-up review of international broadcasting and decided to keep a mixed portfolio,'' said the senior official. The surrogate stations would not be abolished, but deeply cut in funding to eliminate duplication of languages and facilities.
Since October, surrogate broadcasts into Afghanistan and Hungary have been cut off. Broadcasts to the Czech Republic and Poland are to be ended in two years.
``The uncertainty is bothering people more than anything else - it's a sea change and it is very tough,'' said Richard McBride, executive director of the Board of International Broadcasting, which overseas RFE and RL. From 1,500 people in Europe and at transmission facilities, only 700 will remain by 1995, he said in an interview.
Despite these cuts in Europe, the US plans to spend $30 million to start a new surrogate - Radio Free Asia - aimed at beaming news about China, Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, and other unfree Asian societies into those same countries.