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Sunday, 24 October, 1999, 10:54 GMT
Spinning the war Russian style
By Angus Roxburgh
Russia has a problem with Chechnya.
"The problem is," as a Russian nationalist member of parliament said to me last week, that "unfortunately in my country the mass media are not controlled by the army".
Coverage of the latest conflict in Chechnya has tended to portray the Russian military as kindly souls who hand out humanitarian aid and sweets to children in towns they liberate, and the Chechen rebels as monstrous terrorists who not only blow up apartment blocks in Moscow and other places, but torture and mutilate their kidnap victims.
A Russian television film about this was even deemed appropriate to be shown to Western journalists and officials who were in Helsinki on Friday for the meeting between the Russian prime minister and European Union leaders.
The film showed a captive's head being chopped off, another's throat being slit, and a third's finger being blown off by a revolver at close range. Other than things like that, Russian television viewers don¿t get to see much of what kind of people Chechens are.
Western reporters shown 'truth'
A small group of us was flown down from Moscow to the area of Chechnya now controlled by Russian forces - that¿s roughly the top third of the republic, north of the Terek river.
But first we were taken to the neighbouring republic of Dagestan to be shown a town which had been attacked by Chechen terrorists in August. The incursions outraged the Dagestanis, who had hitherto been fairly sympathetic to the Chechen cause.
The Russians say the attacks - by Muslim fundamentalist fighters - justify their operations aimed at wiping them out.
The president of Dagestan instructed us on how to report what we saw.
"Tell only the truth," he said, reminding us that the truth was that "Russia is fighting bandits, and in Dagestan you will observe a huge patriotic rising against the terrorists".
Later, our hosts tried to ply us with vodka and Dagestani cognac, enjoining us to go a way with happy memories of their hospitality.
We all looked at each other and stared down the long, empty road leading towards the lion's lair. "So, will the army accompany us?" we asked.
"No, no, but the Chechens say you'll be safe."
A few mad souls among the journalists, mainly from France, seemed tempted to take up the offer.
I for one couldn't fathom why the Russian army, which was supposed to be guaranteeing our security, was even making such a strange suggestion.
Suddenly there was a bustle of activity and word came back that there had been a sighting of some ruthless kidnappers - the very band, indeed, that had held and then executed three Britons and a New Zealander last year.
"Sadly," the official spokesman explained, "the trip's off".
But there you go - the unspoken conclusion was - that's what we're fighting against.
Russian television promptly reported what had happened, saying foreign journalists had realised how dangerous Chechnya really was.
Chechens speak out
General Gennady Troshev, commander of the eastern front, gathered the cameras round and made a little speech to the townspeople, prompting them to exclaim how peacefully the Russians had entered the town, without a shot being fired.
He promised more aid would be brought in, and that money would soon be found for doctors and teachers to be paid, for the first time in three years.
Part of the Russian strategy is to woo the regions it occupies in this way. A government-in-waiting is being set up, ready to take over as the area controlled by Moscow enlarges.
But the good citizens of Shelkovskaya clearly hadn't been shown the script. They told me they had voted overwhelmingly for the pro-independence government of Aslan Maskhadov - a government that Moscow now says it doesn't recognise as legitimate.
It wasn't long before many people were voicing scepticism about Russia's intentions - and outrage at its ferocious air attacks on neighbouring village, even if Shelkovskaya itself had largely been spared.
"There are several villages near here," several men told me, "where 70% of the houses have been destroyed. What's the point of that? The fighters had left long ago."
Yes, they use villages as bases from which to attack Russian positions. But they are highly mobile and make sure they get out as soon as it looks like an attack is imminent.
During the last war they survived for two years in this way and were finally able to mount a counterattack on Grozny which pushed the Russians out.
The signs are Moscow is believing its own propaganda. Officials talk about gradually expanding the pro-Russian area. They say ordinary peace-loving citizens will throw the terrorists out and Chechnya will slide back into Moscow's orbit.
Somehow, I don't think it is going to be like that. Thursday's slaughter of civilians at Grozny's market and maternity hospital is probably just a taste of worse to come.
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