I am writing to express my concern about Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which recently has undergone a very disturbing “revamping,” as its management calls it. As a result its mission to promote democracy and freedom was virtually abandoned. The programs that most effectively carried out this mission were shut down; the most dedicated people were fired. Key operations are being moved to Moscow, thus effectively surrendering the station to Russian governmental control. With such a “revamping” Radio Liberty may not only stop supporting freedom in Russia, it may well become Putin’s tool for suppressing it.
Shrinking Russia’s embryonic freedom and democracy would be a good reason for modifying the work of RFE/RL. Apparently, that was not a reason for this revamping, since management did not seek the opinion of leading experts in that area. Instead, they hired an outside consultant, Paul Marszalek, a specialist in musical entertainment from the TV station VH1. Having no expertise in either Russian politics or promoting democracy, Mr. Marszalek did not hesitate to produce two reports with a “set of specific recommendations” for “revamping” RFE/RL.
Those reports do not contain any critical assessment of the state of civil liberty in Russia. They do not even mention the fact that for the last few years Russia’s media have lost their independence. Instead Marszalek writes, “Russia’s media market has matured greatly” and has become more “sophisticated, complex.” From these and other comments one can conclude that the author operates on the wishful presumption that there are no real problems with Russian democracy.
But Marszalek doesn’t ask why anyone would need Radio Liberty at all. He rather approaches Russia as a professional entertainer, for whom making radio more effective is simply making it “user-friendly” by all possible means, such as introducing more topics “on the light side... ranging from pets to health to household subjects.”
Marszalek sees the main obstacle for pleasing Russian listeners and their leaders in the fact that that “the station does not seem to have made a complete transition from the Cold War focus/mentality.” He apparently does not understand that the real problem is that this mentality is still ingrained in the minds of the Russian people and their leaders. How else could he explain that according to a recent opinion poll about 70 percent of Russians consider America its number one enemy; that Putin just announced the development of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons; and that Russian officials have announced their intention to erect new monuments to Stalin. And what about Marszalek’s concerns “that Svoboda is perceived by its audience as a foreign station,” and that “Russians want a station that does not come from 'overseas Russians.'” Isn’t that a typical manifestation of Soviet/Russian xenophobia, a key element of the Cold War mentality? Isn’t the principal responsibility of Radio Liberty to fight this Soviet mentality?
Instead of challenging Soviet prejudices, however, Marszalek chooses to pander to them. “To counter this image [of a foreign station], the station has taken steps to move the center of gravity to Moscow,” says the report, and suggests that “the bureau in Moscow has the potential to take the lead in running Svoboda.” Do the people in RFE/RL not know that Putin has closed most independent media outlets in Moscow and that many Russian journalists were killed for criticizing people in power? And what about the Duma passing a law that would deny visas to those who speak unfavorably about the Russian government? The whole idea of short-wave radio was to keep broadcasters out of the reach of the governments they criticize. By moving the station to Moscow this advantage would be totally surrendered and would put Radio Liberty at the complete mercy of the Kremlin.
The only way to ensure the continuous operation of RFE/RL in Moscow would be to impose strict self-censorship. Mr. Marszalek is quite conscious about that. He would minimize the number of “overseas Russians” in the station, and replace them with Russian citizens fearful of their government. He does not explain how he would identify those “overseas Russians.” Will he hire a specialist in eugenics or by getting their list directly from the KGB?
The radio’s management adopted Marszalek’s recommendations as a real plan for action. A number of important programs were closed and many experienced people fired. Among them was Tengiz Gudava, the renowned journalist and human rights activist. Gudava’s expertise was good enough for Ronald Reagan, when a few of us were invited to brief the President before his historic visit to Moscow. But that was Reagan with his Cold War mentality. The new management of RFE/RL, who have exorcized this mentality, did not need the help of that “overseas Russian.”
The unanimously negative reaction to “revamping” from dissidents, other prominent intellectuals and the American media did not stop RFE/RL management. Not because they were enchanted by Marszalek, but because his recommendations merely finalized what had been going on at RFE/RL for many years. From my personal experience I know that dissidents were a very important part of Radio Liberty during the 1980s and were gradually phased out by the end of the 90s. Their positions were filled with citizens of the former Soviet Union, many of them children of high-ranking officials and graduates of the old traditional Soviet schools for communist loyalists. Dissidents, who managed to break the seemingly impregnable barriers of communist censorship and soviet mentality, are also conspicuously absent from the Radio management and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Those structures are staffed mostly with people who have no record of promoting freedom in the Soviet Union. Some of them got their positions in the relaxed atmosphere of the 1990s when Radio Liberty was viewed as an obsolete structure of no political importance. Somehow those appointees were not replaced in the four years of the Bush presidency, although their actions clearly contradict the President’s policy of promoting democracy around the world. The time is long overdue to bring into accord our country’s policies with institutions that are set to implement them.
Yuri Yarim-Agaev is a scientist and human rights activist. In Russia he was a leading dissident and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Upon arriving in the United States after his forced exile from the Soviet Union, he headed the New York-based Center for Democracy in the USSR. He was among first people inside The Soviet union who were asked by US officials to assess the work of Radio Liberty.