Role of the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty at the demise of communism in 1988-1991

by Elnur Kuliev

Introduction

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are U.S sponsored radio stations which were launched as one of the combating weapons against communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in the Eastern Europe. The main aim of this paper is to analyse the role played by an organisation at bringing demise in the Soviet Union and satellite states during an end of the Cold War (1988-1991). At first this paper will provide brief background information of the main aims of RFE/RL when it was inaugurated on 1950’s. Before focussing at the period of the demise of communism, the paper will briefly focus into the changes which happened to organisation during Hungarian Revolution of 1956.  Afterwards, this paper will analyse  how radio influenced the  movements which led to  the break-up  of communism in the Soviet Union, Baltic states and Romania during 1988-1991.

Background of the RFE/RL

Before the merger of the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on 1979, both the stations were divided into two separate organisations which were launched on 1950’s. Radio Free Europe, station which was aiming at satellite nations of Soviet Union, was organised by Free Europe Committee and was launched on November 4, 1950(Puddington, 2000: 1-5). Meanwhile Radio Liberty, beaming towards Soviet Union, was launched on March 1, 1953 (Sosin, 1999: 13) and organised by American Committee for Liberation (Amcomlib) (Sosin, 1999: 2). Both of the stations were launched as a strategy to combat against communism without actually intervening directly by military and government means. To achieve this aim both stations were sponsored by CIA even through most amount of staff workers were led to believe that it was privately-owned company until merger of two organisations went public. According to Sosin (1999), who was a member of staff for 35 years of the Radio Liberty, provides his account when he found out that Radio Liberty was funded by CIA and conditions which were given to him by the Amcomlib. It is important to note that staffers from Radio Free Europe had similar experience.

 “Ted Steele, the assistant of Admiral Stevens, then president of Amcomlib, asked me to come to his main office…He greeted me with a grin on his ruddy face and said “Gene, I have good news and bad news for you”…The good news is that you passed the security checks. The bad news is that you are now ‘witting’…He confirmed that Amcomlib and the radio station under its control were indeed “assets” of the CIA, which received funds from annual appropriations of the U.S. Congress, secretly disbursed with the knowledge of only a few senators and representatives on the Hill. Steele requested that I sign paper pledging that I would not reveal this secret.” (28)

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty had broadcasted its broadcasts in several of the languages. Radio Free Europe had services in Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Romanian and others of the satellite nations behind “Iron Curtain”. The stations of particular service were referred as voice of Free of named country, for instance “Voice of Free Poland”. Meanwhile, Radio Liberty was (and still is) beamed to (ex-)Soviet Union and vast of its broadcasts aimed at Russian-spoke population but to addition to that it had broadcasts of all 15 languages in the Soviet Socialist Republics(which includes Moldavian, Azeri and Ukrainian) and the two additional languages of North Caucasus region of Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic(RSFSR) which were Chechen, and Tatar-Bashkir.

 What made RFE/RL stations unique from other propaganda media tools aimed at the communist block, such as Voice of America (VOA), is that it broadcasted the messages which will be directly be interest to the targeted audience rather than information of the American policies and other attempts to glorify U.S and capitalist societies. In the memoir one of the staffers at Radio Free Europe provided following description of the style of presentation of the station: “Only with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, however, did a country establish broadcast services whose purpose was to change the form of government in foreign nations by airing news not about the country  from which the broadcasts originated but about the countries that were broadcast targets”(Puddington, 2000: 5-6).

1956 Hungarian Revolution

Although that between 1956 Hungarian Revolution and 1988 Solidarnosc(Solidarity) protest in Poland, there was only one significant uprising (Czechoslovakia uprising of 1968) have took place , the Hungarian Revolution has been referred to by several of the historians as first signs that those  people could stand against communism.

Another reason why the 1956 Hungarian revolution deserves the brief study in this paper is due to fact,  that Radio Free Europe was under pressure from governments both from the Soviet Union and Western side regarding of its coverage of revolution. One of the main arguments which critics proclaimed during that time is that Voice of Free Hungary (VFH), one of the regional stations of RFE, had motivated the students to revolt against current Communist government and that station provided false implications that Western nations, especially USA will provide help after few days of local revolt. It is important to note that aid never arrived.(Puddington, 2000: 90)

One of the arguments of the escalation of the revolution was the secret speech has given by Nikita Khrushchev  during 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Union in the 24-25 February, 1956 in which he criticised Stalin and his “cult of personality”. When CIA got this information into its hands there was decision to broadcast it through RFE affiliates. The Hungarian saw this move as possibility to bring back into power Imre Nagy, Hungarian communist who was providing more liberal socialist policies during his leadership but was sacked with the decision by Stalin. Hungarians believed that “de-stalinisation” might bring Nagy back to power.

VFH staff, which consisted of numerous Hungarian émigrés, during the revolution likely through the emotional reactions were aiming to keep revolution going on with the unjustified statement that West will come for help in upcoming days. The worries came even before the initial revolution as American embassy wrote memo aimed at RFE and VFH, regarding of its coverage:

“Radio Free Europe, the memo charged, was encouraging what was regarded as a dangerous mindset; RFE and other foreign broadcast services were guilty of “arousing what may be false hopes”…”(Puddington, 2000: 96)

In the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution William (Bill) E. Griffith, chief policy adviser in Munich headquarters, provided internal study of the broadcasts of the VFH affiliate during crises. Even through Griffith findings does not obtain full blame to the role played by the station, it does acknowledge that some of the VFH broadcasts did have some violations of the organisation rules. For instance, one of the scripts was criticised by Griffith as: “The writer tells Hungarians to sabotage (‘disconnect’) railroad and telephone lines. It fairly clearly implies that foreign aid will be forthcoming if the resistance forces succeed in establishing a ‘central military command’”(Puddington, 2000:105)

After the Hungarian Revolution  of 1956, which RFE had an internal crises, the organisation has decided to treat similar cases in future at more moderate ways. Czechoslovak uprising in 1968 was treated in calmer sense by Voice of Free Czechoslovakia(VFC).

Demise of the USSR

The role of the RFE/RL(Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which was merged in 1979) at the break-up of Soviet Union and end of communism in Eastern Europe is questionable taking account of the 1985 Mihail Gorbachev glasnost(openness) and perestroika(reconstruction) movements, internal problems within Soviet Union and its satellite nations (especially in Poland). In addition most of those nations did not want end communist system but rather demanded to change communism to be more socialistic(except of Baltic states). For instance, during the February 1988 demonstrations given by Soviet Armenian citizens at Nagorno-Karabakh (NKAO) region, which back then belonged to Azerbaijan SSR, in which Armenians proclaimed they wish to transfer  NKAO regions to Armenia SSR, none of the demonstrators proclaimed any talks of succession and anti-communism. In fact it was otherwise, “To ward off arrest, they had devised slogans that proclaimed that they were Soviet loyal citizens acting within the spirit of glasnost.  Banners carried the slogan “Lenin, Party, Gorbachev!””(de Waal, 2003: 11).

The above example of events happening in NKAO during February 1988(that led to the six years war in the region), shows that those actions in that region, and other regions including the case with  Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster  in 1986, were not against Soviet Union Party. The talks of succession from Soviet Union from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine had begun as those conflicts progressed, and those republics realised that CPSU(Communist Party Soviet Union) only makes the case more complicated and being unhelpful. Hence, the chances of RFE/RL at escalating those  crises, as was case in Hungarian revolution is very slim, as station was rather for those regions to obtain succession in peaceful manner instead than non-succession military and aggressive uprisings.

However, during Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster which happened on 26 April 1986 RFE/RL played an important role, as did other foreign radio corporations which were available in the Soviet Union. Soviet press did not provide the full and in-depth reports regarding to the disaster, focussing instead into economical and propaganda news as usual. Brian McNair, during his studies at Moscow State University, provides following report of how “informative”  Soviet media reported about Chernobyl: “Thus began, for me and for millions of others, a period of ten anxious days…, during which Soviet government, through the media, kept its own citizens, foreign guests, and the international community as a whole in virtual ignorance about a nuclear catastrophe of unprecedented seriousness.”(1991:2)

Brian McNair stay in Moscow also coincided with the events that were happening in NKAO, which are mentioned above. In following excerpt, McNair(1991) describes how Soviet media reported into the events which were happening in the region:

“Throughout March 1988, Soviet journalists stressed two propaganda themes: first, and despite events in Nagorno Karabakh and Sumgait, life in trans-Caucasian republics were proceeding in relative normality; and secondly, despite the actions of a small, unrepresentative minority of ‘hooligan elements’, the great majority amongst the various ethnic groups in the region had long lived together in harmony and wished to continue doing so”(72)

The following attempt at focussing to the Chernobyl and Nagorno Karabakh crises, as non-serious issues, provided distorted information of the whole Soviet population apart of some segment of population which were directly involved in the events happening in Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia. That of course, if others did not have access to RFE/RL services.

According to Sosin(1999), “We(Radio Liberty) learned from audience reports that an “at a time when the Soviet media hardly broadcast anything at all about it and merely claimed that the situation was under control, Radio Liberty devoted a great many broadcasts to Chernobyl””(195). Since through Radio Liberty and other foreign sources, Soviet citizens were able to obtain information of the events happening in Chernobyl, the Mihail Gorbachev and its Party media had to admit the nuclear reactor disaster did take place, even through it was fully informed on 6 May 1986 to the media, 11 days after accident has happened.(McNair 1991: 66)

If the Soviet media and internal events did in fact break-up USSR, as there is an argument among Russian scholars, then the information provided about Chernobyl by western media, including Radio Liberty had provided this drastic changes, such as willingness by Soviet media and party committee to become more critical into the system following ideology of glasnost.(Puddington, 2000: 198)

Even through American historians and RFE/RL claimed that  the events which happened during Failed August Coup d’etat in Russian parliament during 19 August to 21 August 1991 – the events which led to break-up of the USSR –  were dominated by their broadcasts , there are lots of accounts by Russian reports that state opposite and despite of closure of the vast amount of radios(among other mass media) some were able to stay on air during these events. According to Bonnell and Freidin(1995)  “ ‘Radio Rossiia’(Radio Russia)  and ‘Ekho Moskvy’(Echo of Moscow), both established in 1990, continued to broadcast from (Moscow) White House and other locations during the coup, as did several other stations on short and medium wave frequencies”(46). It was even argued by some that 1991 failed August Putsch coverage provided the nation recognition and rise of popularity to Ekho Moskvy, which still is one of the popular talk/news stations in the country (Buntman & Korzun, n/a).

Baltic Republics

During the Reagan years the Baltic Republics were transformed from Radio Liberty affiliates to the Radio Free Europe. The transformation of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian services to RFE, was the highly political move taking account that those three republics were mainly arguing for succession status since 1945, compare to other 12 republics in USSR (Puddington, 2000: 217).  The Baltic services during that case had obtained a dilemma of either to be anti-Russian communistic coverage which was demanded by local citizens or be less sympathetic towards Russian leaders but still not demand succession. When Gorbachev came to power the Estonian RFE service, was very skeptical to new reformist communist. According to Puddington(2000):

“Thus when in 1988 the old-line leader of the Estonian Communist Party was replaced by a Gorbachevian man of Euro-Communist sympthathies, Ilves (the chief-editor of the Estonian service) was unimpressed. “I felt that my job was to show that this Gorbachev idea of Communism  with a human face was still a Communism””(298).

Among the RFE/RL services present in the republican states of USSR, Latvian and Lithuanian among Estonian were first to be critical to the communism and probably provided the closest glasnost style reportages. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Lithuania was the first republic to get an independence from USSR on  11 March 1990, followed by Estonia 30th March and Latvia on 4th May(Graham, n/a). Interestingly those three nations also refused to sign the CIS(Commonwealth Independence States) treaty on 21 December 1991, which was signed by all the members of ex-USSR apart of Baltic States(Georgia signed few months later)(Global Security, 2009).

Romania

Romanian treatment of the communist party regarding to  broadcasts which been aired by Voice of Free Romania (VFR), probably show how the station indirectly led to demise of communist at Romania. Nicolai Ceausescu, leader of the Romanian communist party, and secret state police, the Securitate made it illegal to Romanians to listen to VFR broadcasts by establishing “Ether“ organisation to minimize effect of the Western broadcasts, including from RFE. Nestor Ratesh, in the conference regarding of influence of Western broadcasts during the Cold War states that:

“By the end of 1980s, the regime’s paranoia had grown to such an extent that “Esther” scrutinised not only those Romanians who had listened to RFE broadcasts, but anyone who might have the “intention to listen to Radio Free Europe” – a category that could include the entire population, or at least all Romanians who owned radio with the frequencies of Western broadcasts” (2004, 26)

Ken Jowitt, during same conference, believes that this illegality by Ceausescu government provided an additional excitement and motivation by Romanians to carry on listening to RFE and other Western broadcasts. In fact, RFE had enjoyed highest number of audiences in Romania compare to other Eastern European regions (2004, 29-30).

Conclusion

It could be comfortably stated that the internal problems at the Soviet Union and Eastern European satellites led to the demise of the communism in late 1980’s- early 1990’s. However, the indirect role played by the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty at focusing at providing uncensored information of what was happening in those regions, compared to propagandistic Soviet media, provided its listeners to realise that something is not right in the system. The decision, following bloody 1956 Hungarian revolution, rather to inform its listeners about what is happening in  their country  instead then influencing military action by population had helped for  citizens to become disillusioned about communism. The aims of the Amcomlib and Freedom Europe Committee were realised, even through it took a bit less than 40 years.

Reference

Bonnell, V.E & Freidin, G.(1995), “Televorot: The Role of Television Coverage in Russia’s August 1991 Coup”.in Condee, N. Soviet Hieroglyphics: Visual Culture in Late-Twentieth Century Russia London: Indiana University Press. 22-51

 Buntman, S. & Korzun, S. (n/a), Coup (in Russian). Echo Moscow. Available at: http://echo.msk.ru/about/history/coup.html. Accessed at: 11/05/2010

 De Wall, T.(2003), “February 1988: an Armenian Revolt.” in Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York : New York University. 10-28

 Global Security (2009), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/int/cis.htm. Accessed at: 12/05/2010

 Graham, J. (n/a), Baltic Independence from the Soviet Union. HistoryOrb. Available at: http://www.historyorb.com/russia/baltic_independence.shtml. Accessed at: 12/05/2010

 McNair, B.(1991), “Glasnsost, Perestroika and Soviet Journalism”. in Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media. London: Routledge. 52-76

 McNair, B.(1991), “Introduction”. in Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media. London: Routledge. 1-6

 Puddington, A.(2000), “Frequency Wars.” in Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. 214-226

 Puddington, A.(2000), “It Will Be Seen Who Is Right.” in Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. 1-19

 Puddington, A.(2000), “Revolution in Hungary and Crises at Radio Free Europe.” in Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. 90- 114

Puddington, A.(2000), “Victory.” in Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. 284-306

Sosin, G.(1999), “Radio Liberty’s Conception and Birth.” in Sparks of Liberty: an Insiders Memoir of Radio Liberty. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University. 1-11

 Sosin, G.(1999), “The Sparks begin to kindle.” in Sparks of Liberty: an Insiders Memoir of Radio Liberty. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University. 27-39

 Sosin, G.(1999), “The Soviet Era Draws To a Close.” in Sparks of Liberty: an Insiders Memoir of Radio Liberty. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University. 195-213

 Sosin, G.(1999), “We Are On The Air!“ in Sparks of Liberty: an Insiders Memoir of Radio Liberty. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University. 13-25

 Stanford University(2004), Session  Five:   Impact  of  the  Broadcasts  in  Eastern  Europe:   Evidence  from  the  Archives  (II). In Cold  War  Broadcasting  Impact. Conference organized  by  the  Hoover  Institution  and  the  Cold  War  International  History  Project  of  the  Woodrow  Wilson International Center for Scholars at Stanford University. PDF file available online at: http://hoorferl.stanford.edu/cooperation.php. Accessed at: 14.05.2010. 25-30

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