Kabardino-Balkaria’s code of silence

1 July 2017
Press House in Nalchik, the bastion of Kabardino-Balkaria’s official media (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

The media in Kabardino-Balkaria parrots an extremely rosy picture of the republic. However, journalists and activists almost all admit privately — that with an eye towards the Kremlin (and Kadyrov’s growing army next door in Chechnya) — freedom of speech has been utterly decimated, and controversial topics go completely unreported.

Of the two or three independent print media outlets that appeared in Kabardino-Balkaria on the wave of democratisation more than 20 years ago, only Gazeta Yuga has survived to this day. In spite of its nominal independence, it has long since ceased to publish criticism of the republic’s top officials.

All other media, including periodicals and two television companies, are all owned and paid for by the state. They never give complete information about the actions of the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities of Kabardino-Balkaria, or their reasons and consequences.

‘If you want to be a Circassian — do so in your own flat!’

According to Valery Khatazhukov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Kabardino-Balkaria, the republic has become the most closed territory of the Russian Caucasus. All difficult topics are banned from being discussed in local media — in particular, the problems of the indigenous peoples of the region.

Valery Khatazhukov (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

‘What kind of freedom of speech can there be if for the slightest mention of abusing the rights of the indigenous population, the editor of a newspaper is summoned to the media supervisor, Marina Kyasova, in the administration of the head of the republic. She tells the editor directly: “If you want to be a Circassian — lock yourself up in your flat and be Circassian as much as you like!” ’, Khatazhukov told OC Media.

[Read also on OC Media: Unambitious state-backed Circassian groups hide a growing nationalism in young Circassians]

Among other problematic topics that are persistently hushed up in the official media of Kabardino-Balkaria, Khatazhukov also mentions land issues and the radicalisation of young people.

‘The authorities have reported that the “religious bandit underground” in the republic has been decapitated, practically destroyed, but everyone understands the fertile soil in which this “bandit underground” ripens remains the same. That is, growing unemployment, a lack of opportunity to legally obtain agricultural land to support oneself and one’s families, the increased number and size of all kind of payments, taxes, fees, etc. These are the reasons for which radical Islamist groups arose and began to act in Kabardino-Balkaria. They haven’t been eliminated — they are multiplying, but the official media in the republic informs us daily of some positive changes in the economic and social spheres and of the threat of external influence looming over the whole country’, Khatazhukov said.

[Read also on OC Media about how Kabardino-Balkaria’s farmers are being deprived of agricultural land]

Astemir Gubzhokov, a student activist for the Circassian national movement commented on the authorities’ information policy.

‘While reading our newspapers, I get the feeling that the authorities are trying to follow the old Kabardian proverb: “What you call for is what comes”. Out of 23 periodicals, including local newspapers, none of them touches on topics that are really important for the future of the region. Every newspaper publishes reports that the government and the head of Kabardino-Balkaria are working tirelessly, participate in some meeting, discuss some problems, and then there are reports of endless but actually useless rallies and flash mobs, such as “Youth against drugs” or “Youth against terror” ’, Gubzhokov told OC Media.

‘The main task is to look good in the eyes of Moscow’

The founder of online project Drugoy Nalchik, Alim Pshibiyev has cooperated with well-known media outlets such as Gazeta Yuga and Severny Kavkaz practically all his adult life. Today he works as an independent journalist.

Contrary to popular belief, he believes that strict censorship of local media doesn’t happen because the authorities of Kabardino-Balkaria strive to mislead society, fearing popular outrage.

‘The authorities know very well that the overwhelming majority of the residents of Kabardino-Balkaria don’t read the official press except for the TV listings and don’t watch state TV programmes except for music videos. The leadership of the republic is motivated by only one desire — to look good in the eyes of Moscow, which forms its opinion on the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria mainly using local media. And since there are practically no media outlets except for official ones, the task of local curators is to ensure that everything looks decent in newspapers and on television. Otherwise, the head of the republic may be dismissed from his post with the well-known phrasing: “in connection with the loss of confidence of the president of the Russian Federation” ’, Pshibiyev told OC Media.

As for the internet, Pshibiyev believes that Moscow is not in a position to monitor and verify the entire flow of information. The authorities are also well aware that if people are deprived of the opportunity to ‘blow off steam’ in social networks, they will start doing it on the barricades.

OC Media spoke to one of the most senior journalists of Kabardino-Balkaria, Mikhail Ivanov, about the freedom of speech and media censorship. Ivanov worked as a correspondent in state newspaper Kabardino-Balkarskaya Pravda from Soviet times, retiring just four years ago.

‘I am following closely what is printed in Kabardino-Balkarskaya Pravda today and how, as well as other newspapers of the republic. This is what I can say, in our republic’s media, unlike newspapers, magazines, radio, and television in other regions of Russia, there has always been censorship. There were only two relatively free periods — immediately after the defeat of the failed coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and during the rule of Arsen Kanokov in the republic [from 2005–2013], who genuinely wanted to make the republic’s official media competitive. What is happening in the media today is very much like the 1970s, when there was a KGB person in every editorial office, when it was possible to talk only about “major successes and singular shortcomings” and when the authorities were “sacred cows” ’, Ivanov said.

Why does Putin need a Chechen army?

Many journalists from official media say in private that the issue of Ramzan Kadyrov and his private army, which is being trained by the FSB’s elite Alfa special forces unit, is among today’s taboo topics.

One of the journalists, who asked to be called Viktor, asked OC Media rhetorically: ‘Why did Moscow decide to create a large well-trained “Chechen army” armed with the most elaborate military equipment?’ He answered himself: ‘So they can quickly and demonstratively “sort out” a situation where the population of any region of the North Caucasus stands up to the authorities’.

According to Viktor, this private army is another result of the notorious strengthening of Putin’s ‘power vertical’.

‘Leaders such as the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Yury Kokov, will sign any document “inviting” Kadyrov’s militants to restore “constitutional order” in Kabardino-Balkaria in case of a threat to their (read: Putin’s) regime. I suspect that Yury Kokov was appointed the head of the republic exactly because of this readiness. In general, the prospects for residents of the region are unenviable’, Viktor said.

At the same time, according to Viktor, there is another taboo which is unsafe to even mention. It is the mystery of how tariffs for utilities are set in the republic.

‘I suspect that only several of the most senior government officials of the Russian Federations know this secret, and no one will tell you directly how these tariffs are being decided’, Viktor said.

Internal and external enemies

After talking to all the respondents, OC Media took their advice to review the last few issues of the republic’s ‘main’ newspaper — Kabardino-Balkarskaya Pravda. As expected, we didn’t find a single critical or really topical material in its pages.

For example, in the issue of 29 June, the front page of the newspaper has an article titled ‘[Prime Minister] Aly Musukov took part and spoke at a coordination meeting on security, anti-corruption, and law enforcement in Kabardino-Balkaria’.

The quintessence of this reporting is contained in two or three phrases, which eloquently demonstrate where and what speed Kabardino-Balkaria’s society is headed.

‘The plenipotentiary representative [of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus Federal District, Oleg Belaventsev] spoke about the attempts of Western special services to use non-profit non-governmental organisations to destabilise the internal situation in the country: “A number of foreign centres of influence are dissatisfied with the strengthening of Russia and are taking certain steps aimed at undermining public unity. Understanding such processes is especially important in the North Caucasus. Therefore, working on NGOs receiving foreign funding is one of the priorities for today” ’, the article reads.

Central Nalchik. The poster shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and reads ‘We are proud of our country’ (Kazbek Tashev/OC Media)

The authorities of Kabardino-Balkaria’s information policy points towards a disregard for the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the republic’s population, as well as the authorities’ inability to violate Moscow’s strict instructions without serious consequences.

After the abolition of elections for Kabardino-Balkaria’s government, which is now appointed directly by Moscow, local politicians, safe behind a fence heavily guarded by the bayonets of Russia’s National Guard may no longer need the people. And it appears that in today’s Russia and Kabardino-Balkaria — there are no grassroots leaders to remind the authorities of the age-old truth: ‘You can do anything with bayonets except to sit on them’.

[Read also on OC Media: No support and no understanding for victims of Stalin’s repressions in Kabardino-Balkaria]

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