Nighline’s Shamil Basayev Interview

For the past few days Russian news outlets have been filled with stories and condemnations. The issue: the Nighline’s broadcast of an interview by Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky with Shamil Basayev, the most notorious and wanted man in Russia. Basayev is a terrorist and he admits it. A proclaimed Chechen nationalist and Muslim, he’s been fighting for Chechen impendence for the better part of a decade. In the last few years Basayev has been the mastermind of some of the largest terrorist attacks in Russia. In October 2002, his fighters took the Odintsovo Theater in Moscow hostage. The attempt by Russian security forces to gas the theater led to the deaths of 129 people. In September 2004, Chechen rebels took the school of Beslan hostage. The incident left 330 adults and children dead and 700 wounded. A few days later, the Russian passenger deaths were blown up by Chechen terrorists, killing 89. Basayev is absolutely unapologetic. When Babitsky asked Basayev about how he justifies the horror of Beslan, he threw the blame back onto Russia as a whole:


“It’s not the children who are responsible. Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which with silent approval gives a yes. A nation that feeds their grasses who ravaged Chechnya. They collect food, things for them, they supply them. They pay taxes. They give approval in word and in deed. They are all responsible. And in Beslan, to be honest, I didn’t expect this. But in Beslan, the issue was either stop the war in Chechnya or have Putin resign. Just one of those two things. Carry out one, and all people are released, no questions asked. Get it? There wasn’t more to it. Well, you can ask why I did it. To stop the killing of thousands and thousands of Chechen children, Chechen women, and the elderly. Look at the facts. They have been kidnapped, taken away, murdered.”

The words of Franz Fanon haunt Basayev’s statement:


“On the logical plane, the Manichaeism of the settler produces a Manichaeism of the native. To the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the native’ the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the settler replies.” (Wretched of the Earth, 93).

It is also such statements by Basayev that have infuriated Russian officials about the broadcast of the interview. In their view, Basayev is the Russian Osama Bin Laden. In fact they claim that they’re affiliated. It is difficult to say whether that is true. I would place the global embrace Islamism by Muslim rebels as similar to the universal appropriation of communism 50 years ago. Basayev desires that an independent Chechnya be ruled by Shari’a law. But if we are to believe his own words, Chechen independence is key.

It is this wedding of Islamism and nationalism and its increasing influence on Chechen rebel forces that has led many Russia watchers to declare that after the Russian security forces killed Aslan Maskhadov in February, they had no one to talk to. Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist, was seeking a cease fire and peace agreement with Moscow. Now, Basayev is their de facto leader. His position is clear. Moscow must leave Chechnya. He isn’t interested in talking. And Moscow isn’t interested in talking to him.

Fanon states that there is a point of no return in anti-colonialist struggles. A point where the violence reaches such intensity that violence itself becomes a force of unification. Or as Sartre put it: “The only possible way out was to confront total negation with total negation, violence with equal violence; to negate dispersal and atomisation by an initially negative unity whose content would be defined in struggle” (Critique of Dialectical Reason). There is no sign of a coming dialectic between Chechen and Russian. Their own unity as Russians or Chechens is based on an absolute disavowal of the Other. An internal positivity predicated on an external negativity. For the Chechens, this point was reached sometime during the long drawn out campaign of Russian destruction and brutality. People say that the Chechen capital, Grozny, is little more than rubble. Thousands have been killed. Thousands have fled into the neighboring regions of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Abkhazia. Over the last 15 years Chechen desires for political self-determination but economic dependence have transformed into absolute rejection of anything less that absolute sovereignty. It can be said that the point of no return for them was a long time ago.

For the Russians, however, if reconciliation was ever a desire, it was obliterated by Beslan. In the Russian eyes, the slaughter of children only reconfirmed inhumanity of their foe. Morover, the slaughter of children was an psychological affront to the entire Russian family. It struck the heart of its patriarchal structure. It made them seem weak, feminine. As Paul Starobin put it in an interesting article on Putin for the Atlantic Monthly:


“The Russian Orthodox and Islamic cultures are both patriarchal. As a man, and as Russia’s symbolic father, Putin is supposed to protect women and children. His tormentors were triumphant when he acknowledged that he had “suffered immensely” from the Beslan ordeal. They had pierced his shield and made him seem womanish. “Putin screamed like a stuck pig,” Basayev crowed in a statement posted on a Web site.”

Hence the Russian government’s outrage over the Basayev interview. At the end of the program, Ted Koppel made an obligatory statement about free speech as if to make a distinction between our “free” press and the unfree Russian society. When threatened, you can always count on Americans to wrap themselves in the ideal force but materially bankrupt shards of the American Constitution, as if it had universal application. Koppel said, “Freedom is speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular, espousing the unacceptable. Then, we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our government and certainly not somebody else’s.” I’m sure Koppel channeled Thomas Jefferson himself for this little speech. While I applaud ABC for airing the Basayev interview, until Koppel dares to air an interview with an American equivalent and takes the heat from “our government,” I can’t help to see his overtures to “free speech” as a pompous and laughable farce.