A depressing aspect of "glasnost" is that the Soviet government manages to get credit for sweeping reforms even when its changes are cosmetic or trivial. One example is the jamming of foreign radio broadcasts.
The Soviets announced last year that they would stop interfering with the Russian-language programs of the Voice of America.What they did not announce was that they would intensify their jamming of other western programs, especially those designed for non-Russian minorities in the Soviet orbit. In effect they merely transferred their energies from one area of censorship to another.
Richard Carlson, director of the Voice of America (VOA), notes that Moscow still spends an estimated $750 million to $1.2 billion a year on jamming a figure several times larger than the budgets of the BBC, VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Kol Israel and Deutsche Welle combined. Some 2,500 to 3,000 jamming transmitters are still operating. "There have been no estimates to date of a substantial reduction in Soviet capital or operating expenses devoted to jamming," Carlson says.
Every large Soviet city and many smaller ones has a "ground wave" station to block forbidden broadcasts from local listeners. Scripps Howard News Service reports that some city dwellers are so eager for such broadcasts that they travel into the countryside just to hear them, often recording them for friends. Cassettes of VOA programs in the local languages of Pashto and Dari are especially popular in Afghanistan.
Moscow also uses hundreds of "sky wave" transmitters, which disrupt broadcasts over wide areas by bouncing signals off the ionosphere. Atmospheric conditions make this method less effective in the hours just after sunset, which has become peak listening time for western programs.
From the Kremlin's point of view, the most dangerous programs are those that help national and ethnic minorities preserve their distinctive cultures. These include VOA's Polish-language broadcasts, Kol Israel's in Hebrew and Yiddish, and Radio Free Europe's for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all now experiencing more ferocious jamming than ever.
Moscow can prove good faith by dismantling its jamming stations, reassigning their technicians and transferring their budgets to more productive uses. Until that happens, the slogans of "openness" will ring hollow.