- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

The United States yesterday brushed aside Russian objections to starting a U.S.-funded radio service for the separatist province of Chechnya, and Radio Liberty officials said broadcasts would begin today.

The two daily hourlong programs in the North Caucasus' three main languages, Chechen, Avar and Cherkassian, were initially scheduled to start in late February. But Washington asked the radio station to postpone them, worried that they would upset Moscow.

"We simply asked them to look at this, consult with Congress on the best use of funds," which it appropriates, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters. "That's what they did, and they are going ahead with that."

Mr. Reeker said the State Department was not in a position to give a green light to the broadcasts, because Radio Liberty is "not an exponent of U.S. government policy." He insisted the new service "represents an effort to provide additional objective reporting and information to the region."

In Prague, at the headquarters of Radio Liberty and its sister service, Radio Free Europe (RFE), spokeswoman Sonia Winter said "there was never any question of not proceeding with the broadcast."

The two services, which during the Cold War aired aggressive anti-communist programming in local languages, are credited with helping to cultivate dissident movements behind the Iron Curtain.

Radio Liberty broadcasts for the former Soviet Union both in Russian and some minority languages and RFE is heard in Central and Eastern Europe.

Broadcasting for Chechnya is a sensitive issue for Moscow, which has been at odds with Washington over its handling of the nearly decade-long crisis in the rebellious province.

Russia fought two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s. After heavy losses for Moscow in the first conflict, which could have cost him his re-election, in 1996 President Boris Yeltsin withdrew his forces.

The second war broke out in 1999 and was inherited by Mr. Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, who pledged during his election campaign in March 2000 to crack down on Chechen separatists. The rebels call themselves freedom fighters; Moscow says they are terrorists.

Chechnya has been a thorn in the otherwise improved U.S.-Russian relations for years. But Washington's criticism of human rights abuses has subsided since September 11 because of Moscow's vital role in the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition.

Mr. Putin is to host a summit with President Bush next month. They are expected to sign an agreement for mutual nuclear reductions and adopt what the Bush administration calls a "strategic framework."

But yesterday Moscow voiced serious concern over the Chechen broadcasts, saying the rebels could use them to spread propaganda.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said a senior U.S. diplomat had been summoned and given an objection note.

"The Russian side stressed that launching specific propaganda broadcasts in the region, including Chechnya … could seriously complicate efforts by [the Russian] authorities to stabilize the situation in the area," the ministry said in a statement.

"This move is incompatible with the common fight against terrorism and the spirit of relations of partnership being formed between Russia and the United States," it said.

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