Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 11

By Mikhail Kochkin

In the Soviet era many of Russia’s regions were bound to Chechnya by close economic, cultural and academic ties–thousands of people studied and worked in Djohar/Grozny, which at that time had one of the best oil institutes in the whole of Russia. Chechens had long been living in the southern regions (especially in Volgograd Oblast); a large number of shepherds and stock-breeders were involved in agriculture and settled in enclaves, often far from the reach of the local authorities. For many years seasonal workers from Chechnya would take construction jobs in the oblasts of southern Russia. Chechens have therefore not been always treated with suspicion: Engaged in peaceful labor, they were a threat to none. Then, at the beginning of the 1990s, the former Soviet Union was rocked by social and political upheaval. The separatist tendencies of Russia’s republics and regions, a sharp decline in standards of living, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia, together with a series of civil wars on the fringes of the empire, all gave rise to a flood of migrants and refugees.

It was hardly surprising that there was a sharp rise in crime, arising, first, from a general criminalization of Russian society–the so-called “criminal revolution”–and, second, because criminal business activities, as the easiest kind, requiring neither painstaking effort nor a static lifestyle, are typically encountered among migrant communities anywhere. All this led Russians to develop a highly negative image of “the newcomers from the Caucasus.” There were valid reasons for this: Feeling that they were on foreign territory, ethnic criminal groups of Armenians, Azeris, Dagestanis and many other immigrants from the southern republics often operated more brazenly and insidiously than even the local mafia. Chechen criminality was distinguishable from that of other ethnic groups by the more aggressive and particularly harsh nature of the crimes committed. The media also played a large part in creating the image of the “evil Chechen” in that all their crime reports emphasized the nationality of the criminals. So there was a substantial shift in the perceptions of the Russian people–from “the Chechen seasonal construction worker and stock-breeder,” to “the Chechen thief and bandit,” even though thousands of people of this nationality continued to labor peacefully on Russian soil. The total lack of a nationality policy aggravated the situation.

All this explains why the beginning of the first campaign in Chechnya did not provoke a negative reaction from the Russian people. Everyone knew that the lawless state of Ichkeria was a hotbed of crime in southern Russia. Kidnappings had become more frequent, and floods of drugs and illegal arms were swamping the region. In 1994, some saw the war against Dudaev’s regime as a battle for their own security, still not appreciating fully what would follow in its wake. However, others were instantly reminded of the experiences of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the United States in Vietnam. The protracted nature of the war, the heavy losses (thousands of dead and wounded), the incoherent policy of President Yeltsin, who was never seriously capable of bringing the breakaway republic under control, the all-powerful oligarchs’ schemes for moneylaundering and misappropriation of funds destined for rebuilding–all this rapidly left people feeling disillusioned with the use of force to resolve the Chechen problem. An antiwar movement emerged which, though small, was still unprecedented in Russia; there was a new mood perhaps best illustrated by the Russian proverb: “Better a lean peace than a fat quarrel.” The aims of the war were unclear to the people (the authorities made almost no effort to explain their actions, and the opinions of many generals when interviewed were often contradictory), while thousands of wounded and maimed soldiers were clear to see, lying in hospitals in Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don. As a result, the Khasavyurt agreements were greeted with relief by almost everyone (apart from the military, who saw them as a betrayal of the army).

The aggression of the Basaev and Khattab militias against Dagestan, and later the apartment-house bombings in Russian cities, sent shock waves throughout Russian society, and it became clear then that a second war was unavoidable. Because of the unprecedented scale of the atrocities, which the authorities accused the Chechen fighters of perpetrating, the second campaign had relatively widespread support. The terrorist acts united the Russians behind Vladimir Putin (who at the time was the acting president), just as they have united the American people behind George Bush since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The greater part of the community came round to the view that there could be no making peace with the terrorist lair poised on its southern borders, and that it must be destroyed at any cost.

Many still hold this view. Although the so-called ‘military’ phase of the operation is long since over, it has brought neither any clear resolution of the situation nor any end to the losses among Russian soldiers. On the contrary, in recent months the number of attacks on federal troops has increased and there is no prospect of any stabilization in the near future. All this generates a still higher level of mutual hostility and strengthens the blatantly fascist mood now seen in several sections of Russian society. In this context, the widespread support for Colonel Budanov, who was accused of the rape and murder of an eighteen-year-old Chechen girl, is indicative. There were demonstrations around the court building; there was a Duma proposal to legislate for an amnesty for all crimes committed in Chechnya on the day of Budanov’s offense; the governor of Ul’yanovsk Oblast, General Shamaev, a veteran of Chechnya, attended the court hearings, shook the hand of the defendant, his former subordinate, and called him a hero; and there were active efforts to have Budanov elected to the Duma. The overwhelming majority of Russians not only do not condemn Budanov but also, at the very least, sympathize with him, and many openly support him. “These aren’t human beings, they’re like animals. The only thing to do is to destroy every last one of them.” This is how Marina R., a well-balanced and otherwise good-natured middle-aged woman, regards the Chechens. And it is a point of view shared by an alarmingly large number of people in Russia.

Why is it that so many intelligent, educated and outwardly peaceable people adopt such an obviously dead-end position? There is a whole raft of reasons, of which the most obvious (although evidently not the main one) is the shape of Russia’s information environment. Those media which in one way or another oppose a military resolution of the conflict, recalling the suffering of innocent civilians and analyzing events from the various standpoints of the opposing parties (that is, the old NTV, today’s TV-6, the ‘Ekho Moskvy’ radio station, ‘Novaya Gazeta’), are seen by many as merely serving the interests of the oligarchs. If you add to this their metropolitan Moscow gloss and the pervasively elitist tone of their output, then you can understand why they enjoy neither the confidence nor the sympathy of a broad swathe of the population.

At the same time, the two leading TV channels (ORT and RTR, both now state-owned) date back to Soviet times and the vast majority of people have an in-built preference for them, especially as their news broadcasts have lately been increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet style of reporting, restoring a long forgotten sense of stability and ‘certainty in what tomorrow will bring’. These TV channels have, of course, traditionally supported the Kremlin’s every military action in Chechnya, and focused their reports on the brutality of the Chechen fighters.

Much more important (though less obvious) in understanding why this “intransigent” attitude should be so popular with a section of the Russian population, are factors such as the generally depressed state of society, the high level of hostility resulting from social tensions, and the persistent stereotyping of the Chechen as both enemy and scapegoat for all the misfortunes that Russia has endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These factors are all very characteristic of the collective consciousness of the people of a fallen empire. In such circumstances a national idea is needed; it is unfortunate that it should be articulated not by social or cultural figures, but by the generals fighting in Chechnya.

However, slowly but surely, people’s attitudes to the war are changing. According to data from VTsIOM (the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion, whose findings are published on the website), in November 1999 (almost at the start of the second campaign) 27 percent of those polled were in favor of peace talks and 61 percent were for a continuation of military operations. Similar monthly polls have shown a slow but stable growth (of a few percentage points) in antiwar sentiment. Thus, in July 2000, 41 percent were for talks and 49 percent favored military operations. A year later, in 2001, 53 percent supported peace talks. Patently, people were growing weary of the war. With the passage of time, the shock and rage caused by the explosions in Moscow has been dulled and the nation’s perception of the war no longer includes a thirst for revenge. The losses sustained by the Russian army during the second campaign are almost ten times greater than the number lost in the terrorist bombings of the apartment-houses in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk, and many Russians are asking themselves whether they are paying too high a price, without any clear prospect of settling the conflict. When asked the question: “If we weigh up all the gains and losses of the 1999-2000 operation in Chechnya, should we regard it as a success or a failure?”, only 17 percent gave a positive response, and 79 percent replied in the negative.

People, for the most part, want an end to the war, certainly not because of any feelings of sympathy for the sufferings of the civilian population of Chechnya (regrettably, concern about this aspect of the problem has long since become the prerogative of Western human rights organizations), but rather because they see any continuation of the war as a pointless waste of the lives of Russian soldiers. “We should cut Chechnya off from Russia with an impenetrable border–let them live as they wish, but leave us alone. And send all the other Chechens back there too.” Such is the view of Svetlana L., a head waiter in a restaurant.

But, unfortunately, as long as this war is advantageous to so many people, it is unlikely to be brought to an end. In Russian society today there are three widely held opinions about what is really going on in the Chechen republic. First, that it is an antiterrorist operation against international criminals; second, a conspiracy by groups of oligarchs both in Moscow and elsewhere; and third, a futile and criminal war against the whole Chechen people. The difficulty is that the real situation is so complex that it contains elements of all three versions.

The link between the fighters in Chechnya and Osama bin Laden has long been obvious, but this alone cannot explain the reasons for all that has happened there. Several political analysts speak of a new “Chechen” lobby (arising from events in Chechnya) that has emerged at the highest levels, amongst Russian government officials, generals, industrialists and entrepreneurs. These individuals are members of the political and economic elite, who, in the space of a few years (sometimes just months) have enjoyed meteoric career paths which would have taken them decades in peacetime. Now there are many who would like to take advantage of the continuing conflict to join their ranks. The war is also proving profitable for the leaders of the military-industrial complex, which in recent years has shown signs of growth that were unprecedented in the Soviet era. And of course, the ‘smoldering’ military operations benefit many leaders of bandit groups, who receive substantial funding from radical organizations (according to Russian intelligence data, Khattab and Basaev received around 30 million dollars from bin Laden for the attack on Dagestan alone), and still find themselves in a position of relative safety, hidden away in the mountainous regions of the republic.

Consequently, the Russian people’s current weariness with the war and their desire for peace play very little part in the long-term prospects for a settlement. The generally high level of apathy in society renders the influence that the small politically active section of the population can exert on the authorities extremely insignificant. Until an intelligent nationality policy is introduced, in Chechnya and throughout Russia, until the state manages to rein in the new militarist lobby within Russia, and until foreign funding for the terrorists is cut off, the war will continue.

Mikhail Kochkin is a postgraduate in linguistic studies and a volunteer with “Eurocontact” NGO in Volgograd.