Andrey Babitsky was the quintessential Russian democratic journalist.
A correspondent for the US government funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (RFERL) since 1989, his star began to shine at the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, when he was embedded amongst the rebel fighters in Grozny. He took a harshly anti-Russian line, writing the following about a summarily executed Russian POW:
It must be said that the Chechens don’t cut the throats of [Russian] soldiers because they are sadists inclined to treat them with brutality, but because in this manner they can make the war more visceral and visible to the public opinion, to explain that there really is a war and that war is cruel and terrifying.
He was detained by the Russian military when attempting to leave Grozny in January 2000. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright personally appealed for his release in a visit to Moscow. In an ironic twist, he was freed, but to the Chechens, in exchange for several Russian POWs. His Chechen friends kept him locked up in a cellar until finally releasing him with a forged passport the following month.
Babitsky would continue being a thorn in the feet of Russian security forces thereafter, his biggest coup being an interview for ABC News with Shamil Basayev in 2005, the man who organized the 2002 Nord-Ost Theater Siege, the Beslan school massacre, and numerous other terrorist atrocities before his assassination in 2006. Needless to say, Russia’s siloviki weren’t fond of him either. Apart from the murky events of 2000, he was again temporarily detained in 2004, delaying him from going to North Ossetia to report on the Beslan crisis.
The rest of his reporting appears to have been much in the same general vein. He condemned “Russian aggression” against Georgia in 2008. He railed against Russian state media propaganda. The blog La Russophobe, a now defunct but once one of the most widely read Russia blogs in the Anglosphere, whose content was exactly what it said on the tin, habitually reprinted Babitsky’s scribblings and called him a “hero journalist.” Since 2009, he has been heading RFERL’s “Echo of the Caucasus” section.
Which makes recent revelations that he was fired from RFERL in 2014 rather… interesting.
Why? His troubles with the editors began with an article on his Russian language blog from March 2014. Just its first sentence, really. It has since been deleted, but the Internet remembers:
This is not about Crimea – on this question, I’m fully agreed with Vladimir Putin’s main thesis, that Russia has the absolute right to take the peninsula’s population under its protection. I am aware that a significant number of my colleagues don’t share this viewpoint. After the President’s speech, I am now a supposedly correct, officially approved citizen, while those who are disagree with Russia’s actions in Ukraine have become national traitors.
That’s it. The rest of the essay is his standard spiel about Russia’s never ending descent into authoritarianism and the persecution and denigration of dissidents. He affirms the absolute right to free speech, and expresses great concern for the fate of the 10% of people who disagree with Crimea’s incorporation into Russia when the other 90% so passionately supports it in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and demonizing rhetoric.
As it soon turned out, he might as well have been talking about himself.
A week later, Babitsky was removed from his position as chief editor of Echo of the Caucasus, and suspended from work for one month without reimbursement. The decision was condemned by Mario Corti, a former director of RFERL who had also ran into terminal disagreements with the senior American management and resigned in disgust. Although he stressed that he disagreed with Babitsky’s position on Crimea, he notes that the overall article was “harshly critical of Vladimir Putin,” and affirmed that opinion in a commentary is “legitimate journalism” and that his demotion goes counter to RFERL’s standing as a “paragon of free speech.”
Babitsky was reinstated as a journalist following his one month suspension, but was quietly dismissed in September 2014 after a stint as a war correspondent in the Donbass. He left without much fanfare, unlike, say, Liz Wahl, whose theatric resignation from and denunciation of RT live on air was carefully choreographed in advance with neocon waterboy and professional troll James Kirchick. Possibly Babitsky didn’t want to risk his Czech residency permit – RFERL is headquartered in Prague – until his daughter finished school. In any case, it was only a few days ago that we finally got access to the juicy details of his departure when he gave an interview to the Czech daily Lidové noviny (here is a Russian translation).
First off, here is a full annunciation of his views on Crimea, which basically reduces to an absolute but in his case principled stand on questions of self-determination and national sovereignty:
LN: Crimea became important to you in another sense: You were forced to leave RFERL after 25 years of working for them on account of your attitudes towards the annexation?
AB: One of my blog posts contained some words supporting Putin’s decision to incorporate Crimea into Russia. The rest of the content was critical towards Putin and Russia. For instance, I condemned the fact that it has became acceptable in Russia to call those who disagree with the peninsula’s incorporation into Russia – traitors to the Motherland. About Crimea itself and its incorporation into Russia there was just one sentence.
LN: Considering that you worked for an American, government-sponsored radio station, wasn’t it at the very least shortsighted to support Crimea’s annexation?
AB: We worked in Chechnya for many years, and even then I was completely certain – if there is some minority, some part of the population, that considers that its rights are in conflict with their host country’s territorial integrity, then there must be a divorce. This oppressed group, if its interests are harmed, has the full right to an independent existence, according to its own rules. As a journalist I supported this right, both when this concerned Chechens, and today in the case of Crimea, and also the Donbass.
LN: [You were fired] because your opinion on Crimea’s annexation differed from your employer’s?
AB: I have a special relationship with Crimea. We have a house there. My wife is a native of Crimea, and her parents – former military – still live there. We go there every summer. So I know that many Crimeans have always regarded Ukraine as a foreign state. Crimeans never felt at home there. They were annoyed by Ukrainization policies. They had the Ukrainian language forced upon them in place of Russian. Ever since its independence, Kiev has carried out an incorrect national policy towards minorities, first and foremost, in regards to the Russian one. During this time period a lot of insults accrued, and people felt it was injust and feared that in the future things would become even worse.
LN: Worse after the arrival of the new Ukrainian leadership?
AB: Crimeans’ feelings are informed by experience: Once again nobody knows what the hell’s happening in Kiev, and what awaits us. The reaction that followed was, in my view, completely normal and even legal. You see the hand of Putin everywhere, but in Crimea people simply revolted in defense of their rights. Just as, in your opinion, did the residents of Kiev. You, like the rest of my Western colleagues, like to argue that in Kiev people were genuinely fighting for their rights and freedoms, while in Crimea and Donbass it is all a conspiracy behind which stand Putin and the Russian secret services. But this isn’t true. The entire peninsula was overtaken in horror by what awaited it, so the separation was an unequivocal reaction to the threat that Euromaidan represented to Crimeans. Doesn’t Crimea have the same right to rebel against injustice and suppression as the Maidan?
LN: [Every minority might have a right to sovereignty], but surely not with support from big neighbors who use not only propaganda but also real weapons to grab territories. A free referendum is one thing, anything else is an incitement of separatism.
AB: Wait a second. Several weeks back the organization GfK Ukraine, a German sociological company – not Russian – published a telling study, according to which 93% of Crimeans are happy with their incorporation into Russia. 93! I do not view Crimea’s incorporation, unlike several of my Western colleagues, as the resurrection of the USSR. To the contrary, it is but a continuation of that entity’s collapse. It is the Soviet regime that created weird, unnatural, and historically unfounded borders, and divided them up into different oblasts and republics that were wholly artificial. …
This didn’t go over well with his Czech interviewer. Babitsky might be a pro-Western liberal who had spent his entire life struggle for “your freedom and ours”… but how dare he put loyalty towards liberalism in front of loyalty to pro-Westernism?
As the interview goes on, the questions gradually become more loaded and hostile. At first, he attempts to respond reasonably, but eventually gives up.
LN: It’s improbable how you, a person who was nearly killed by Vladimir Putin’s regime, and forced into exile, have today become a supporter of Putin…
But Putin isn’t Russia! Russia – it is history and rich tradition. Pushkin is Russia. Apart from that, it must be said that Russia today resembles a European country to a much greater extent than does Ukraine. Yes, Russia has its nationalists, but that is a problems of deviants. But in Ukraine, nationalism has become a state doctrine. Nationalism, be it Ukrainian or Georgian, leads to Hitlerian Nazism. Russia is a multinational country, where nationalism doesn’t have a future.
LN: Is there anything at all in Russia that deserves your criticism?
AB: It still has many Soviet aspects. First and foremost, a very difficult situation in respect to free media, with free access to information. Anti-Western sentiments are growing, there is a lot of belief in extreme conspiracy theories, restrictions on civil rights, and so on. But in Ukraine the situation is worse in all respects.
LN: So Crimea, according to you, ran away from those Ukrainian nationalists into the warm embrace of big, good, traditional Russia. Just as if it came from Russian state TV…
AB: Crimea escaped the bloody drama that Donbass didn’t. There were 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers on the peninsula, if some fool in Kiev had given the order, the conversation would have been overtaken by heavy artillery, and Crimea would have been completely destroyed.
LN: Czechs are always drawn to the Sudetenland comparison. Do you also believe that back then the German minority should have battled for its rights?
AB: This was, first of all, an act of external aggression. You didn’t persecute Germans. Or did you also wish to make them Czechs, like Ukrainians were doing in to Russians in Crimea? In Crimea, it was completely different. A big conflict was decades in the making. People were becoming cardinally disillusioned. And as soon as the revolution engulfed Kiev, they started fearing further restrictions on the usage of the Russian language and the promotion of Ukrainian… and not only this. You see, there is also historical experience to consider. My mother was born in Kiev. Seventeen members of our family were killed during the war by Ukrainian nationalists.
LN: I am not the only one with serious doubts that Russians’ rights in Crimea were likewise restricted under the regime of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
AB: Do you trust me as a journalist? If so, think about it – in the past ten years I have been to Crimea thirteen times, I spent every summer there, and it is from this position that I tell you: Go to hell with your doubts.
But interesting as this all is, the Crimea sentence wasn’t what he was fired from RFERL for.
He was fired by a US government funded media outlet for exposing possible Neo-Nazi atrocities.
LN: Fear about the consequences of the Maidan were mostly spread by Russian media. Surely you, as a journalist, know the power of information…
AB: When I was still working at RFERL, I asked the managers to send me to Donbass. I went there and worked as I usually do in a warzone. On September 2, 2014, I filmed the exhumation of four corpses: Two civilians, and two insurgents. According to the locals – not the militias, but ordinary residents of Novosvetlovka – these people had been executed by Ukrainian volunteers from the Aidar batallion. I didn’t provide any commentary on this, just filmed it and sent it to the Moldovan division of RFERL. The video was published online. After this, the nationalists in the Ukrainian division of RFERL became hysterical. There was a big scandal. All this, just because I had published a video, which only recorded what I saw with my own eyes, without any additional commentary.
LN: But sometimes the specific selection of facts, presented without context, can create a cardinally false version of events…
AB: The video was deleted. On September 26, I returned to Prague. I was invited to the office and was told that my position has been removed. RFERL has clearly and definitively become nothing more than an instrument of American propaganda.
Who could have imagined it?
Now don’t get me wrong. RFERL is funded by the US government, so in principle, the US government can dictate how it uses its resources (although ideally, if not in practice, subject to electoral accountability and journalistic ethics). If that involves kicking out journalists whose opinions and reporting overstay their welcome, then so be it. After all, virtually all state-sponsored international media, in some capacity or other, serve the interests of their sponsors: Al Jazeera – Al Jazeera, the BBC, CCTV, France 24, Deutschewelle, and… RT.
But it is primarily the Western media organization that tend to have the chutzpah to deny this and instead claim an altruistic and universal dedication to truth, objectivity, free speech, and fluffy pink rabbits. Maybe it’s just a case of people talking on about that what they don’t have. RT at least is honest enough to admit its blatant pro-Russia biases. As its director Margarita Simonyan put it, “There is no objectivity – only approximations of the truth by as many different voices as possible.” This brutal honesty annoys the Western establishment real bad, because they view their social arrangements and global hegemony as a revealed truth, and anything that even so much as suggests that it may be just one of many truths is equivalent to heresy, and calls upon the rage of the chiliastic monotheist in battle with other faiths. Hence the vilification of RT, and even calls for it to be banned, with several investigations against it already launched by the UK’s Ofcom media watchdog.
RFERL is, in this respect, the quintessential Western MSM outlet. Not only does it supposedly strive for objectivity, but it even has a quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as its motto (Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”). That’s even better than The Guardian’s “comment is free”!
But RFERL’s response to concrete questions about its treatment of Andrey Babitsky and their commitment to his freedom of opinion and expression is… a bit more laconic.
I made an inquiry to Brian Whitmore, a blogger at The Power Vertical, RFERL’s Russia blog. No reply, though I had interacted with him on several occasions in the past. Okay, so I’m a Putin lackey, and RFERL is possibly keen to avoid “exploitation by the pro-Kremlin media in Russia.” Why not, then, answer Ben Aris, a journalist who supported the Maidan?
The answer is as simple as it is cynical.
The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go. In the big scheme of things, it is just a minor iteration of what happened to Solzhenitsyn after he rejected neoliberal capitalism, or Gorbachev after he came out in support of Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. It’s either their way, all the way, or the highway.
But don’t mention this, or we’ll hound you out of our mutual agreement societies too, because you’re biased and hate freedom.