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The Russia Journal, February 21-27, 2003

After the referendum - not too much

By Andrei Piontkovsky

A demonstration against the Chechen War in central Moscow on Feb. 1 attracted just a few hundred people. Wet snow fell on the yellow robes of Buddhists beating a tambourine that somehow made a particularly mournful and lonely sound. The state TV channels either ignored the demonstration altogether or emphasized the small number of people it drew.

On the Chechen War's foreign-propaganda front, the authorities can proudly claim a few victories. Former head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Lord Judd has been defeated. Just remember Dmitry Rogozin's happy smirk on the first day of the "Nord-Ost" hostage tragedy and his quip, "What will Lord Judd say now?" The extradition process against Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov's aide, Akhmed Zakayev, is now underway in Britain, though it won't bring Moscow the result it hopes for. Finally, the Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, flew to Washington at state expense to give another of his press conferences there rather than in Moscow.

But all these successes on the domestic and foreign fronts can't hide the fact that Moscow has once again lost the Chechen war. First, it lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Chechen people, trying to convince them that they are Russian citizens by bombing them, murdering them, torturing them, abducting them and subjecting them to "cleansing" operations.

Back in the autumn of 1999, Russia had for the first time, perhaps, a real chance at winning its war. The Chechens were fed up with their own gangsters and would have accepted federal authority in the hope of seeing some order brought to their republic.

By the autumn of 2002, Moscow had already lost its three-year long Chechen War in the hearts and minds of a majority of Russians. For the first time since the war began, surveys showed that the number of people supporting an end to the war and negotiations with the rebels had broken the halfway mark to reach 60 percent.

True, people don't go to anti-war demonstrations, or any demonstrations, for that matter, because they're disillusioned, passive and don't believe they have the power to change anything. But public opinion has already rejected this war.

What's particularly worrying for authorities are the signs of change among the elite, which is forced to react to shifts of mood among the population. Previously, the only people to consistently support negotiations were human-rights activists and one prominent politician, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky. But they are now beginning to be joined by others. The very party that swept into the Duma on a wave of patriotic fervor, with its leaders proclaiming the Russian Army would be reborn in Chechnya and that those who thought otherwise were traitors, is now organizing and sponsoring anti-war conferences. Last September and October, even such conservative and cautious politicians as head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Arkady Volsky and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who belong to the "mainstream" of the Russian elite, spoke in favor of a change in Russian policy on Chechnya.

Hawks in both Chechnya and Moscow used the "Nord-Ost" tragedy to stop this peace movement from swelling. But, despite the immense propaganda effort, the effect has been short-lived. By the beginning of the year, the level of support for negotiations with the Chechen rebels led by Maskhadov had returned to its October 2002 level and will inevitably increase.

Now the authorities have their attention taken by another new toy - the self-deception of their plans to hold a referendum in Chechnya on March 23. Before this date, they don't want to hear about anything else, so the sooner the referendum takes place, the better. It will have just as triumphant a result as the election of Doku Zavgayev as Chechen president in December 1995. But the very first day after the referendum, this soap-bubble illusion will burst, and the authorities will find themselves facing the same old problems in Chechnya and having to deal with an increasingly alienated public opinion.


See also:

War in Chechnya

The Russia Journal, February 21-27, 2003

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