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Foreign Correspondence: David Filipov

January 14, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Our foreign correspondent is David Filipov, Moscow bureau chief for the “Boston Globe.” He spent considerable time in recent months covering the conflict in Chechnya. Welcome back, David.

DAVID FILIPOV: Thanks for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of the TV footage, most of it out of Chechnya that we see, all focuses on the Russian soldiers, setting off artillery or whatever. We see very little… We had a little bit today earlier in the show, but very little of normal life, the Chechens, the countryside. What’s it like there on the ground?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, if you’re talking about the part of Chechnya that’s occupied, that’s controlled by the federal forces, the situation there is pretty bleak. There isn’t that much of an economy. There’s not much to do. It’s very muddy there. There hasn’t been any commerce or really anything for anyone to do any work. So really there’s a lot of people standing around. Any place where there’s been fighting, those villages are ruined and very little has been done to put them… To repair them in any way. So the closer you get to the areas where there have been fighting, the worse things look. ..A lot of people standing around sort of wondering how to put their lives back together.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you’ve also talked to Russian soldiers on the front a lot. How is their morale?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, the first few minutes of any conversation with Russian soldiers, usually the more senior they are as officers, the more they’ve been instructed to avoid saying things to journalists that might later on come back to haunt them. So they’re often very optimistic and they tell you that everything’s under control, that “we’re confident. We know we have an army.” The more you talk to Russian soldiers, and Russians like to talk, so sooner or later you… The more you start…

MARGARET WARNER: And you speak Russian.

DAVID FILIPOV: And I speak Russian, right. I speak Russian. My wife is Russian, so we speak Russian at home. The more you hear some of the other side of the story, they’re a lot less confident about their ability to hold ground. They talk about attacks from the rear; they talk about the various problems they’ve run into in taking territory when the Chechens defended hard. The other thing is the less senior soldiers, draftees, privates, I mean, I ran into privates who were begging for food on the road. They would stop a car. You stop thinking they want to see your documents. And they say, you know, “do you have anything we can eat?”


DAVID FILIPOV: Other soldiers who sign contracts to sign up, and there has been a lot of talk about them and their effectiveness as a fighting force there, they were complaining about how their contract lasts until February and they want to go home.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you seem to suggest that even though we get these glowing reports from… Of their progress, that they don’t have great control on the ground.

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, the Russian force there obviously has been able to bash its way through two-thirds of Chechen territory, three- quarters of Chechen territory.

MARGARET WARNER: The northern part.

DAVID FILIPOV: The northern part. But when they go through a town, if there’s any resistance, they level it, and then they move on. If there’s no resistance, they go through, make sure there’s no fighters, rebel fighters, and then they move on. The parts that they’ve moved through are then empty. And you go through them later and there’s no Russian military presence, or maybe there’s a couple of police standing on the outskirts checking documents, but that’s it. So when they take territory, they don’t necessarily hold it after that.

MARGARET WARNER: How hard is it as a journalist to cover the war there? You’ve been there a couple of times just recently.

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, it gets… It’s getting harder. There are a couple of problems. The first problem at the beginning of the war, of course, there has the many kidnappings of foreigners, journalists included. And…

MARGARET WARNER: By Chechens mostly?



DAVID FILIPOV: I’ve never been kidnapped, so I can’t say. The accusation is that it’s Chechens, although Russian police officials have told me that there were also copycat kidnap groups that would kidnap people and then make it look like the Chechens did it. It became a big problem, a big black hole, a big area of lawlessness. But then once you get over your fears of kidnapping, then the next problem is, is how to get through Russian lines. Well, it’s not as easy as it might look, but it’s also not as difficult as it might look because the Russians are notoriously incapable of controlling territory that they control. And then the third problem is getting around, and that’s what ultimately did me in the last time I got there. When I got close to the front line, that was when the Russians say, “hey, what are you doing here?”

MARGARET WARNER: So you detained by Russian soldiers?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, they held me up for a little while and a couple of other people who were with me, and took us back to the main staging center in Mostov and asked us a lot of questions of who we were. But basically the point was, you’re not supposed to be getting this close to the front line.

MARGARET WARNER: So you were quite close to Grozny at that point?

DAVID FILIPOV: We were on the outskirts of Grozny, at the front, where the Russians were trying to advance and not really doing it because they couldn’t break through the heavily defended Chechen lines.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say that the Russian government is actively discouraging journalists from covering the war there?

DAVID FILIPOV: Well, they have an official line, which is that they don’t think it’s safe because of the kidnapping and because of the fighting. But then they have what they really are seeking, which is they’d like to control this. And they know that when western journalists go there, for example, we tell a story that they don’t want to be told. And it makes perfect sense. All militaries try to control journalists. But there’s another level, which is that they have gone out of their way, I think, in trying to censor the reports of Russian mainstream media who are reporting from the area. And so the western journalists who do get through really put… Make that effort look bad. And that’s why I think they try hard to keep us out. A lot of people have been discouraged, and a lot of Russian journalists don’t want to cover it because they’re… They’re offended at the Chechens for the kidnappings. They share the view of many Russians that it’s not safe to be a Russian in Chechnya, so a lot of people just don’t go of their own volition. It’s a combination of things.

MARGARET WARNER: Has the Russian public, though, been getting a sanitized view of, say, the number of casualties, how the war is going? Or does it depend on what media you’re looking at?

DAVID FILIPOV: If all you do… If you’re living outside of Moscow/St. Petersburg and all you do is watch television for your news, then you’re getting a very sanitized view. The further you get… There are two major state-run Kremlin- influenced state television stations that are seen all across the country, and those are showing the view that the military and that the government would like people to see. If you’re in Moscow, there are a lot of alternative sources for media. A lot of print media have been writing pretty much the same way that the western media has been writing from the beginning of the war. You see stories about how the media coverage is slowly getting more anti-war. In fact, there have been a lot of print publications that have been covering the war rather fairly objectively since the very beginning, but they don’t have a lot of influence outside the big cities.

MARGARET WARNER: But how do you explain that the polls, if they are to be believed, show that at least up to now the Russian public seems to be gung-ho about this war and about Vladimir Putin, the new president, for the way he has been handling it?

DAVID FILIPOV: You have to go back to the causes of the war, or at least the official reason for the war was a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities that the Russian government very quickly blamed on Chechen rebels, although there’s never been any proof. Now recently, they’ve brought out a videotape saying this is proof that the Chechens were bombing… were making bombs to bomb apartments. There’s never been the kind of conclusive proof that would make you want completely back — Russians think that, “yes, we have to do away with this. The Chechens have been de facto independent for three years, since the last war there, and you know, we have to put an end to this.”

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, that that support is strong enough to withstand if there are reports of greater casualties over the coming weeks?

DAVID FILIPOV: This is the big question. I don’t think that anything that happens in Chechnya, unless it’s an inconceivably big disaster for the Russian armies, can stop Putin from being elected in March 26 elections. But after that, he will be the new president with a real serious and long-term problem on his hands. Then the popular support for this thing will slowly erode.

MARGARET WARNER: All right David, thanks very much. We’ll have you back.

DAVID FILIPOV: Thanks for having me.