Russian Opposition Journalist Andrey Babitsky Discovers Western Freedom of Speech
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…
Read the full interview in Anatoly Karlin’s original.