Radio Liberty takes to Abkhazia

The Western media is increasing its presence in the Caucasus region. The US-sponsored Radio Free Europe is preparing to go on air in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The broadcasts from abroad will, according to the station, bring objective coverage of the area. Locals, however, fear it could be a tool for Georgian propaganda.

In Abkhazia, you can tune into a dozen radio stations. The audience in this small republic by the Black Sea gets to choose between Russian, Georgian, Abkhazian and even Turkish broadcasters.

Now America's own Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, wants to join in with a special daily newscast.

“We will be different,” Andrey Babitsky, the man tipped to lead the project, explains.

“Radio Liberty's objective is to spread democratic values. It's the station's platform. And it's the angle at which we look at events."

But he would make a controversial choice as the radio’s leader.

Well-known in Russia for his coverage of the second Chechen campaign in the late 90’s, he has come under scrutiny for his suspected associations with terrorists.

The suspicions were first raised after he carried out a number of interviews with militants and sold them to Western media outlets. It was in that period that he was arrested by police for violating the counterterrorism laws.

He was reportedly released and exchanged with the Chechen militant group, which saw three captured Russian soldiers freed.

Now though, his focus has switched to an interest in democracy in Abkhazia.

It isn’t only the man in charge who is provoking debate in the country. While Radio Liberty employees are optimistic about their new project, in Abkhazia their plans have already stirred controversy. Some fear, that the station, funded by the US government, will become a propaganda tool for Georgian leaders and their American allies.

The Authorities in Sukhum are not sure what message the new program will bring to its listeners in Abkhazia. Maksim Guinjia, Abkhazia’s deputy foreign minister, voiced these concerns:

“The first news that we got, that Radio Free Europe will broadcast and promote Georgian values into Abkhazia,” he said.

“This radio will contradict our law about media and about propaganda. In case this radio would apply to Abkhazia with an official statement, that it's ready to establish connection with Abkhazian authorities – in that case we are ready to cooperate. We're not against any radio, especially Radio Free Europe.”

Radio Free Europe announced it will have its own reporter working in Abkhazia, while broadcasting to the territory from abroad.

Some journalists in Sukhum say it will definitely not going to win the trust of local listeners.

Ruslan Khashik is the director of the independent Abaza channel, known for its opposition to Abkhazia's current government. He says if Radio Liberty follows the good-old cold-war-era tactics, it just will not work in Abkhazia.

“Broadcasting from Prague, like they did during the Soviet times, while having a goal to destroy the political system – it's not something that will work out,” he asserted.

“And the Soviet legacy is not something that can be easily applied here. Abkhazia is totally different, our society is different. Our nation has a goal – to build our own state, and I doubt that somebody can stop us from doing that, especially from the outside.”

With less than a month left until the first Abkhazian special on Radio Liberty, those living in the republic still have little idea what to expect.

Will it just be a lesson in democratic values, a new angle on current events, or something totally different, like the information war to persuade the people of the newfound republic of the merits of Georgian rule? The listeners will soon find out.