Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Hide-and-Seek with Russia's News Minders

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Hide-and-Seek with Russia's News Minders

Article excerpt

Our arrest happened within half an hour of arriving in Vladikavkaz, the capital of the mainly Christian Caucasian republic of North Ossetia.

We were caught talking about the Chechen war with a couple of off- duty soldiers lounging on the street. Hauled off to police headquarters, after a couple of hours we were sent politely but firmly on our way by an officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the former KGB.

The message was clear: Don't try finding out anything about Chechnya here.

In what is being called "the information war," journalists are apparently the enemy. The Russians have decided that one mistake of the unsuccessful 1994-96 campaign to crush Chechnya's independence drive was to allow the press to cover it. Not any more. The embattled territory of Chechnya has been closed to reporters, except for a tiny handful who are granted special military accreditation and go in under close supervision. Many major news organizations have tried for months, unsuccessfully, for this press pass.

But to arrive anywhere in the North Caucasus today is to pass unwillingly under tight FSB surveillance.

North Ossetia is the only traditionally Christian region among the six Russian republics that nestle up against the high, snow- capped Caucasus Mountains. In Soviet times it was spa country, where people came to ski, drink from mineral springs, and enjoy the fresh mountain air. Our brief police episode notwithstanding, the local people are warm and friendly.

But post-Soviet times have not been kind. The Ossetians fought a savage 1992 war against their Ingush neighbors, and hundreds of local boys are serving with Russian units nearby against their hereditary enemies, the Chechens.

Barbed wire between

Theoretically, Ossetia's border with next-door Ingushetia is an internal Russian boundary, like the line between two states in the US. But it looks more like the Berlin Wall, with barbed wire, minefields, and heavily armed guards. We passed through three separate checkpoints - where Ossetian, then Russian, then Ingush security scrutinize us in turn. On the Ingush side, refugees from the brutal ethnic cleansing in that forgotten 1992 conflict still live in forlorn little clusters of huts.

Of Russia's 89 republics and regions, Ingushetia is by far the poorest. The republic's unemployment level approaches 80 percent. Sociologists say if it weren't for the safety net of strong family and clan structures, many of its 300,000 people would be starving. Since Russian airstrikes began last September, Ingushetia has been inundated with an estimated 170,000 fleeing Chechens. The two peoples are closely related and share a language, but the strains are growing.

On the Ingush side, we hired our own driver and stayed in a private home, eschewing the Assa, the republic's one official hotel, in the capital of Nazran. …

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