The Russian military is having an anticipated tough time as it works its way into Grozny, entering a decisive phase in the campaign to reestablish control over Chechnya. But as Russia pummels the Chechen capital, officials are trying to do the same to the foreign media.
Moscow's fight to regain control of the breakaway Muslim republic is not just being waged on battlefields. The government of President Boris Yeltsin, which has had a firm grip on how the three-month war was portrayed in a domestic media largely owned by Kremlin allies, has resorted to Soviet-style attacks on the foreign press for reports it dislikes.
The shift in tactics began last week when Western news agencies reported from the streets of Grozny that Chechen rebels had wiped out a column of Russian soldiers - embarrassing coverage a few days before Dec. 19 parliamentary elections. In its toughest approach to foreign media in years, Russian responded by accusing the journalists of lying and working for other countries' intelligence services.
Yesterday, Russian officials denied reports carried by the wire services that reported remarks by Chechen commander Adam Baibulatov. He said 1,000 Russian paratroopers who had landed inside Chechnya's southern border with Georgia were surrounded and suffering heavy losses.
And on Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry denied the report by the BBC that Russian troops killed 41 people earlier this month in a rampage through Alkhan-Yurt, a pro-Russian village west of Grozny.
"They [the government] are actively using an old and notorious method - endowing themselves with the right to decide what we should or should not know...." says Anna Shargorodskaya, who heads the St. Petersburg branch of the independent Russian National Press Institute. "It used to be like this in Soviet times. We have to look to foreign media for alternative information."
The war is wildly popular among most of Russia's 147 million people, as is the hawkish Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Analysts say Mr. Putin is counting on his tough stance to win the June presidential election. Putin has denounced foreign reports of losses in Grozny as "complete rubbish" and "a provocation."
The difference between Russian and Western versions of war events has never been greater. In the early days of the campaign, Western television showed images of tens of thousands of Chechen civilians fleeing Russian air attacks. The Russian press, meanwhile, emphasized military advances against Chechen "bandits."
Analysts say the blasts are why the military operation remains so popular, in contrast to the 1994-96 Chechen war, which has been likened to Russia's Vietnam.
"Ideologically, the current war is more understandable for the people. They believe the Army is fighting terrorists," says Oleg Panfilof, an official with the Moscow-based Glasnost Protection Foundation.
Resistance to the war is growing, however, as more information leaks out. One source is the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, an advocacy group for draft dodgers and parents of soldiers missing in action in Chechnya. The group claims 900 men still are missing in action or unidentified from the first conflict. It rejects official casualty figures in this campaign of a little more than 500 as too low.
"Now too, there is a big gap between official and real figures," says Maria Fedulova, an official with the committee. Ms. Fedulova rejects Russian media reports that soldiers in Chechnya are well looked after. She says most young conscripts are poorly fed, barely know how to use a gun, and are paid $1 a month.
Soldiers returning from Chechen duty have also begun to tell local television stations their uncensored stories. Their accounts make Russia's operations far less glorious than portrayed in the mainstream media.
But these attempts to cut through the military spin still have a long way to go. Very effective in shaping public opinion is the Rossinform Center, a new media-liaison body, through which the government puts across its take on the war. Regular briefings are held, resembling the Pentagon's media approach during the Gulf War. Rossinform also organizes tightly controlled trips to Chechnya for small groups of journalists.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society