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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen War Hits Home in Provinces




Television viewers in Russia's provinces are seeing a much grimmer Chechen war than the one being broadcast in Moscow.


While national television stations have reported on the conflict from a strategic military perspective, regional stations have brought the story home, focusing on local soldiers sent to the front, the fears of their loved ones - and the tragic instances when they return in coffins.


And although the practice may be driven more by lack of resources than editorial conviction - low-budget regional television stations cannot usually compete with the Moscow giants in reporting on-site national news - such an emphasis on local stories could help explain why the war enjoys less popular support in the provinces than in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.


On Friday's evening news, the MIA-Gorod station in Blagoveshchensk - located on Russia's border with China, six time zones from Chechnya - aired a piece about a local Interior Ministry unit returning from a two-month stint in Dagestan.


"God forbid anyone should have to live through this, when parents send their children to war," said one soldier's mother, who met the returning unit. "They may say that this is a localized war, but it's war all the same."


Similar scenes have been shown on many of Russia's estimated 600 working television stations since the beginning of the latest conflict in the North Caucasus.


In September, the Kaskad station in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad broadcast scenes from the funeral of Vitaly Mariyenko, 24. As women wail in the background, the reporter narrates the story of the young officer, who was serving in Buinaksk, Dagestan, and on Aug. 17 died in "his first and last battle" in the village of Tando.


While most television viewers in the regions tune in to national news programs, many supplement that with regional broadcasts.


"Practically every self-respecting station tries to cover the fate of their local people," said Manana Aslamazyan, executive director of Internews-Russia, an organization that assists television stations. "Any coffin that comes from Chechnya is going to be reported by the regional TV."


The practice may explain the regions' lower approval ratings for the Chechen campaign. A recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation found that in the two biggest cities, 77 percent approve of the war, while for Russia as a whole, that drops to 64 percent.


In some ways, however, it is a chicken-egg problem. While regional television seems more interested than Moscow stations in the fate of Russia's soldiers, this may simply reflect greater concern about casualties in the regions, where young men are more likely to end up in the army.


Alexander Pikayev, a military analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says Muscovites may be less worried about casualties because their sons are less likely to be fighting in Chechnya. Wealthier and better-informed than people in the regions, Moscow residents have a better chance of avoiding service by attending university, pulling strings or using outright bribery.


Still, there are Muscovites serving in Chechnya, and their families suffer no less than families in the Urals or Siberia. But Moscow's television stations rarely cover this side of the issue.


"We don't have a tradition of human interest stories," Aslamazyan said, adding that the first priority of national news programs is to sort through the mess of political news that accumulates in Moscow each day.


Furthermore, while state-controlled RTR and ORT are part of the government's front line in the propaganda war about Chechnya, the regional stations are "closer to their viewers," Aslamazyan said. "They can't lie to them."


Indeed, when it comes to casualties, regional stations seem far more frank.


In a piece about a local police unit returning from Chechnya, Ivanovo's 7X7 station offered this bit of commentary: "The Interior Ministry has assessed the dangerous work of the officers at 400 rubles a month, plus a 55-ruble per diem. It seems the lives Russian guys are risking every day in Chechnya are not worth very much."


Regional stations also seem more sympathetic to Soldiers' Mothers, a respected anti-war advocacy group.


Viktor Muchnik, news editor at Tomsk's TV-2, said one of his reporters accompanied a delegation of the local Soldiers' Mothers affiliate to the North Caucasus.


In contrast, Valentina Melnikova, spokeswoman for Soldiers' Mothers in Moscow, said the capital's journalists had largely ignored their message. "I haven't heard such lies since the time of Stalin and Beria," she said.


Muchnik said his station had refrained from taking an editorial position on the war due to lack of information. "The more people die, the more pronounced our objectivity will be," he said. To his knowledge five people from the Tomsk region have been killed so far.


Yekaterinburg's Channel 4 has regarded official information skeptically from the start of the conflict.


In a September report on wounded who were flown in to Yekaterinburg's military hospital because hospitals in Rostov-on-Don and Moscow were already full, the station drew attention to the military's refusal to say who the wounded were or what regions they were from or to allow journalists into t he hospital.


Anchor and news editor Anna Titova said the station sent a group to Chechnya to check on the local OMON unit and has a Chechnya-related story in practically every edition of the news. She said Channel 4 uses footage from APTN - a company created last year when Associated Press Television and Worldwide Television News merged - and thus broadcasts interviews with Chechen fighters and other things that would be unthinkable for the Moscow stations.