At the height of the recent anti-Armenian riots in the southern Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, two radio stations financed by the U.S. government were broadcasting a virtual call to arms by Azerbaijani nationalists, the Soviet Union has complained to the United States.
Soviet officials have charged that the broadcasts further inflamed passions in the region.
In a series of highly emotional interviews with Radio Liberty, Azerbaijani nationalists called for popular resistance to Soviet forces sent to quell the violence, in which 72 people, most of them Armenians, were killed in mid-January, according to transcripts of the broadcasts provided by Soviet officials.
Leaders of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, the principal nationalist movement in the republic, and the allied Azerbaijani National Defense Council went so far in Radio Liberty's Azeri-language broadcasts as to allege that the Soviet Communist Party had carried out anti-Armenian pogroms to justify a crackdown on Azerbaijani nationalism. Such nationalism has grown rapidly over the past two years.
The party had even organized a special squad to kill Armenian grandmothers so that there would be an excuse to bring troops into Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, one activist asserted on Radio Liberty.
In an interview broadcast on the Voice of America's Azeri-language service, another prominent activist, rejecting the central government's opposition to the formation of the armed militias by Azerbaijani nationalists, asserted that their units were necessary to defend his people against Armenian attacks.
As the crisis grew through January, Radio Liberty's Azeri-language service carried dozens of other interviews with Azerbaijani activists that senior Soviet officials believe, in the words of one, "set one nationality against another . . . provoking internal strife and escalating conflicts, and we believe deliberately so."
The Soviet government, in objecting recently to the U.S. State Department about these and other broadcasts on the two American stations, made it clear that its basic complaint was that militant nationalists were being given a radio platform to whip up passions at a time when Moscow was trying to prevent further bloodshed and restore order in the region.
In the transcripts provided by Soviet officials, the Azerbaijani activists frequently gave dramatic but unverified accounts of clashes, either with Armenians or the Soviet army, that in the atmosphere of the crisis could have brought revenge attacks. Some accused the Soviet troops of committing atrocities in Baku. Others called for Azerbaijan's secession from the Soviet Union.
"Can you imagine how outraged Americans would be if, God forbid, there were again race riots in Watts or Harlem or Washington and radio stations put people on the air saying in interviews that the police were shooting children on the street or hiding hundreds of bodies of people they killed?" a senior Soviet official asked.
"But now try to imagine that these interviews were broadcast by a foreign government, which has two radio stations that have a wide audience in the areas where people are being killed, and you would have to question the motives of those involved," he added.
Both the Voice of America, which is a branch of the U.S. Information Agency, and Radio Liberty, which is financed by the U.S. government but operated independently, defended their Azeri-language broadcasts, including the interviews cited by Soviet officials.
Iain Elliot, acting director of Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to the Soviet Union from Munich, called the complaint "an attempt of Soviet authorities to extend their censorship to Western media."
Elliot said the interviews cited by Soviet officials were "very selective," coming from a mass of material broadcast by the Azeri-language service five hours a day, seven days a week, and that the official Soviet criticism was intended to inhibit Radio Liberty and other Western stations from broadcasting material not cleared by Soviet censors.
"Those broadcasts were greatly appreciated by the Azerbaijani people," Elliot said by telephone from Radio Liberty's headquarters in Munich. He recalled that at the time, local newspapers were not publishing in Baku, that the television station had been damaged and that the Soviet army had taken over the radio station.
"For many," he said, "their only source of information in those days was Radio Liberty."
Gerd von Doemming, head of VOA's Soviet division, said that an interview with Mekhti Mamedov, a historian active in the Azerbaijani Popular Front, which had been questioned by Soviet officials, had taken up about 10 minutes of VOA's hourlong Azeri broadcast. It had followed a lengthy newscast, a survey of American and international comments about the ethnic violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan and considerable criticism of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, he said.
"I could make an argument about why this particular segment perhaps should not have been broadcast," Von Doemming said by telephone from Washington, "but I empathize with (the producer) because a genuine effort was made to provide a spectrum of opinion and include a balance of views, including that of the Azerbaijani Popular Front. . . .
"We have nonetheless reviewed the program in terms of our guidelines and basic philosophy, and we have had serious discussions about it. . . . It is our effort not to aggravate hostilities where there is bloodshed."
At the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a spokesman described the Soviet complaints as "serious matters . . . requiring an investigation and a response." He said they had been relayed to VOA and to the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting, which supervises Radio Liberty, and that preliminary replies affirming the radio stations' "commitments to traditions of objectivity and responsibility," had been sent to the Soviet government.
With their broadcasts no longer jammed, Radio Liberty and Voice of America have large and apparently still-growing audiences in the Soviet Union because of the wide range of uncensored news they present and their ability to focus on major Soviet events, such as the conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan, in ways that the Soviet news media, though freed from many past constraints, still cannot.
"During this crisis, we spoke to all segments of the Baku community, and we aired all their views," said Mirza Khazar of Radio Liberty's Azeri service. "I had more than 700 telephone interviews from Baku, and we used only 20% of them, those we were sure of or that we could double- and triple-check. I am confident of the accuracy of the material we broadcast."
Yet Radio Liberty's Elliot acknowledged that some of the material cited by Soviet officials, when read "in the cold light of day," might have been withheld for further verification or to avoid aggravating a tense, often dangerous situation.
"We are obligated to check information out, but we are also obligated to let people on the spot speak out," Elliot said. "That's why we call this segment of the broadcast 'Voices of Azerbaijan.' "
In one of the criticized interviews, broadcast by Radio Liberty the afternoon following the entry of Soviet troops into Baku, an activist accused Soviet troops of atrocities.
"This is worse than genocide," the activist declared as crowds gathered around the Communist Party headquarters in central Baku to protest the military intervention, according to a transcript of the Jan. 20 broadcast. "They want to destroy the Azerbaijani people. They gouge out the eyes of the dead people and behead those whom they killed. They refused to let through ambulances, even to pick up corpses. Something really horrible is happening."
One activist, Neimat Panakhov, accused Moscow in a Jan. 18 interview with Radio Liberty of preparing these events "according to a special scenario. They themselves staged the provocation. They have special people who perpetrate the provocations, but they cannot be caught red-handed."
The VOA, broadcasting an interview with Mamedov on Jan. 17, characterized the Soviet government's position as "anti-Azerbaijani." In that broadcast, Mamedov issued a virtual call to arms and praised the establishment of an Azerbaijani militia to defend Azerbaijani villages against what he described as increasing attacks by Armenians.
Other Radio Liberty broadcasts through the height of the crisis carried interviews reporting that Armenian helicopters were firing on Azerbaijani villages; that Armenian militias had been equipped with U.S. Stinger ground-to-air missiles, Italian land mines and other Western weapons, and that Azerbaijani villages along the Armenian border were under attack.