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Controversial US Radio Broadcasts Draw Criticism in Moscow - 2002-04-03

American-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty begins controversial new broadcasts Wednesday to the troubled region of the North Caucasus. The broadcasts begin amid protests from the Russian government.

A spokeswoman for RFE/RL confirmed the radio's new North Caucasus Service will go ahead with daily broadcasts in the Chechen, Avar and Circassian languages.

The new programming has raised the ire of the Russian government. Moscow is especially upset about broadcasts to Chechnya, where Russian forces are fighting a deadly guerrilla war against Chechen separatists, whom Russia often describe as terrorists. On Tuesday, the foreign ministry summoned a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to protest. The ministry expressed concern the broadcasts would amount to propaganda and could harm bilateral relations, as well as stability in the region.

Senior Kremlin administration official Alexei Volin said the broadcasts might also foster extremism and violence. He said the danger is that these programs cannot be monitored properly and controlled and that they could contain calls for extremism and violence.

Officials of RFE/RL dismiss these concerns, saying their programs will simply provide news and information to the entire Caucuses region, not only to Chechnya. In Washington, the State Department has also dismissed Russian complaints. Spokesman Philip Reeker said he is confident the programs will demonstrate a high degree of professionalism and high journalistic standards.

Senior Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky took a "wait and see" attitude. Mr. Yastrzhembsky said the government will follow the new broadcasts closely before drawing conclusions. He said he is not pessimistic. Still, he cautions that, if necessary, the government will take legal action against the radio station.

RFE/RL had planned to begin its new broadcast to the Caucuses in February, but agreed to hold off, after requests by the State Department. In Washington, State Department spokesman Reeker said the delay was simply to allow for consultation with Congress. But there were reports the postponement was designed to avoid upsetting Russia at a time when Washington wanted its continued support for the international coalition against terrorism.

RFE/RL is based in Prague and is administered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which overseas U.S. government-funded broadcasting, including the Voice of America.