Staunton, March 19 – The author of these lines usually refrains from commenting on US policy not because he doesn’t have strong opinions about it but because that is not the purpose of the Windows on Eurasia series. But there are occasions when policies are proposed that will have a serious and even deleterious impact on the region Windows does cover.
One of those occasions is now: Yesterday, the Trump Administration released its 2020 budget request. It would cut the budget of RFE/RL from 124 million US dollars to 87 million US dollars and close the Georgian, Tatar-Bashkir and North Caucasus language services (rferl.org/a/trump-administration-2020-budget-request-calls-for-closure-of-three-rfe-rl-language-services/29828716.html).
It is difficult to overstate just how big a mistake it would be if Congress approved that proposal.
My conclusion rests not on the fact that I had the privilege of working at RFE/RL twice, in 1989-1990 and again in 1996-2001, but rather on the experience I have had over a much longer period following developments among the non-Russian peoples of the USSR and now the post-Soviet space.
The Georgian Service continues to perform important work not only informing the people of that country but also signaling American support for the Georgians as they pursue their dream of integration with the West even as part of their country remains under partial Russian occupation and they remain under continuing Russian pressure.
Eliminating that service now would certainly please Moscow, but although it is certain to be packaged as representing Georgia’s “graduation” to a stage where it doesn’t need US broadcasts, that is not how it will appear to those who listen to its message either directly or through the splash effect of stories the service generates and Georgian outlets then spread.
But I am especially concerned about the call for closing the Tatar-Bashkir and North Caucasus language services. They are small, do not have embassies in Washington to speak for them, and have long been candidates for closure in the minds of those who either do not know the history and purpose of US broadcasts or understand the nature of Moscow’s empire.
Perhaps no other services at RFE/RL routinely break as many stories that otherwise would be passed over in silence by the state-controlled outlets in those two regions or do so much to pass them on via Russian to an even broader audience in the Russian Federation and via their websites to the diasporas from these areas and to Western audiences as well.
Bringing unvarnished information to these peoples is the primary task of these services just as it was in Soviet times. There is no possibility that a Ramzan Kadyrov is ever going to broadcast the truth to his people. Like his patron Vladimir Putin, he will simply pass over in silence any inconvenient stories and lie about most of the others.
The Putins and the Kadyrovs of this world will certainly be delighted by the Trump Administration’s proposal. But no one in Washington (outside the Russian embassy, of course) should be pleased. They should recognize how important such broadcasts are to reaffirming what the United States stands for and how important that is for our friends in these places.
In the spring of 1991, when I made my first visit to Estonia, which was then still under Soviet occupation, Lennart Meri, then foreign minister and later president of his country, showed me a remarkable set of notebooks. They recorded his experience on an almost daily basis over almost 40 years of whether he could hear RFE/RL through Soviet jamming.
Most days he could but of course not always, and it was clear that for him, who helped guide his country into the European Union and NATO, these broadcasts were more than about getting news and information, as important as that was. They were a sign that the people and the government of the United States cared about the fate of his people.
Authoritarians in big countries and those who are intimidated by them are often prone to dismiss any but the great powers as “small countries far away about whom we know nothing.” That is what Nevil Chamberlain said when he failed to come to the defense of Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s aggression.
At a time when Vladimir Putin has invaded neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine and is seeking to destroy the languages and thus the peoples who speak them within the current borders of the Russian Federation, closing these small services is not just a false economy. It is a betrayal of those people and, at the same time, of who we Americans are.