Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 209

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the strong support for the Chechen military campaign from both Russia’s public and elite is collapsing, the dynamic is certainly starting to change. The Berezovsky press appears to be taking advantage of the situation. Yesterday, Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko movement called for a thirty-day halt in the bombardment of Chechnya and ground operations there, in order to let refugees leave the breakaway republic, and for talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov (see the Monitor, November 9). Yavlinsky, who had previously supported the operation in the name of fighting terrorism, warned that the situation in Chechnya is “seriously destabilizing” and that Russia’s armed forces “have fulfilled their task in the northern Caucasus” by establishing the preconditions for a political resolution to the crisis. Yavlinsky called for talks with Maskhsadov, but said that Maskhsadov must agree to various conditions–the release of hostages, an end to kidnappings and the slave trade, extradition of those responsible for terrorist attacks in Russia and disarming armed formations. If Chechnya refuses to begin talks after thirty days, Yavlinsky said, the military offensive should resume (Russian agencies, November 9).

Perhaps more significant was the implicit criticism of the military offensive–and the man leading it, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin–which appeared today in the newspaper Kommersant, part of Boris Berezovsky’s media empire. While another Berezovsky-controlled paper charged today that Yavlinsky’s cease-fire initiative was campaign-related political grandstanding (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 10), Kommersant led today’s edition with an article on eighteen Russia soldiers and officers wounded in Chechnya and now recovering in a Samara hospital. They were quoted as saying that their losses were much higher than those being reported in the mass media. An Interior Ministry special forces serviceman, who would only give his first name, said that some 70 percent of the officers and enlisted men in his 1200-man brigade had been killed or wounded. A wounded tank driver said, “Most terrible of all was to enter a village. Practically all the homes are destroyed. Old people hide in the basements. A majority of the population is starving. They look at us as if we were beasts. I myself saw how women and teenagers are taking up arms. It is very difficult to know who there is really a fighter. During the day everyone is peaceful, but as soon as night falls, they begin shooting at us. They say this is the way it was in Afghanistan.” According to official government statistics, 257 Russian servicemen have been killed in the current campaign and 683 wounded (Kommersant, November 10).

In using one newspaper to attack Yavlinsky’s cease-fire plan while using another to paint a brutal and pessimistic picture of the Chechen military campaign, the Berezovsky-controlled press can help undermine that campaign–or, more precisely, the man leading it, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin–without appearing unpatriotic or antimilitary and thus alienating Russia’s generals. Berezovsky and others in the Kremlin inner circle, who reportedly want to replace Putin with Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, or perhaps Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed, appear to be trying to create doubts about the war, or exploit those which have already emerged. While public opinion polls have shown strong support for Putin, the basis for that support–the perception that the Chechen campaign is being successfully prosecuted–may be changing.

A recent poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found 24 percent of its respondents predicting that Chechen fighters would be destroyed and Chechnya brought back into the fold of the Russian Federation, 30 percent thinkng that the conflict would become protracted and spread to other parts of the North Caucasus, and 19 percent believing that the conflict would lead to huge losses for both sides and end as the 1994-1996 campaign did (with Russian forces withdrawing after a ceasefire). VTsIOM also found that 51 percent of those polled believe the Russian authorities are unable to protect the public from terrorist attacks, but that only 38 percent believe the authorities can prevent such attacks (Moskovsky komsomolets, November 10). Such findings–whether doctored or not–cannot be good for Putin.