Many believe that Russia’s populace supports the Kremlin’s policy toward Chechnya. It is very common to hear from Russian political scientists that Russians no longer care about the situation in the war-torn region. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an ordinary Russian thinking every day about how to resolve the Chechen issue. However, Russians do not appear so indifferent when they are asked about Chechnya.
The latest survey on the situation in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus in general, conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, indicates serious divisions in Russian society about what to do with Chechnya.
The results of the survey, which the Levada Center conducted late last year, were posted on the organization’s website. The poll shows that despite massive propaganda by the Kremlin, most Russians remain very pessimistic about the situation in the North Caucasus. 67 percent regard the situation in the region as “tense” while 10 percent see it as “critical and dangerously explosive.” Only 15-16 percent believe that the situation in the North Caucasus is, if not trouble-free, then at least calm.
The Levada survey shows that the majority of Russians regard the North Caucasus as a hopeless quagmire and a permanent crisis. 54 percent of Russians see no reason to believe that the situation in the region will change for the better in the near future. 10 percent are even more pessimistic, suggesting that the situation will continue to deteriorate, and only 24 percent believe in changes for the good in the region.
As for Chechnya, the Russian public is almost equally divided between those who believe that the war is still ongoing and those who think that peace is returning to the region (44 percent versus 42 percent). It should be noted that according to a survey conducted by the Levada Center in 2005, 68 percent of the Russian public believed that war was still ongoing in the republic. As we can see, this number has dropped by 24 percent thanks to the Kremlin propaganda machine and the information blockade around the region. Nevertheless, 44 percent is a considerable amount given the fact that a year ago, the Kremlin instructed all Russian TV channels not to focus on Chechnya and to report only good and very optimistic news from the region, such as the opening of a new school or the paving of a new street in the ruined Chechen capital Grozny. The footage of Russian soldiers patrolling Chechen streets that was once so common has almost disappeared from Russian TV screens and has been replaced by pictures of pro-Russian Chechen police officers and officials declaring the end of the war.
Unlike many journalists who portray Ramzan Kadyrov, the de facto pro-Russian leader of Chechnya, as the best solution to the Chechen problem for Russia and as the man who can bring stability to the region, ordinary Russians are more suspicious of this political figure. According to the Levada Center, only 31 percent said they believe that Ramzan Kadyrov is capable of ending hostilities and bloodshed in the republic while 38 percent had the opposite opinion. 31 percent found it difficult to answer and 35 percent suggested that Kadyrov could not be trusted.
The Levada polls demonstrate that, as far as the Chechen topic is concerned, the Russian public is still divided into hawks and conciliators. 10 percent of Russians believe that only the deportation or genocide of Chechens can solve the problem. 26 percent are for the continuation of anti-rebel operations in the region, such as searching for rebel bases in Chechnya’s mountains and eliminating rebel leaders.
Nevertheless, despite the widely held assumption that the Russian public as a whole fiercely rejects any compromises with the Chechen separatists, the Levada Center surveys show the opposite. 19 percent of Russians are in favor of Chechen independence and 12 percent are in favor of a new peace treaty with the Chechen insurgency. According to the survey, while 2 percent of Russians favor the total extermination of Chechens, 4 percent of them believe that the Chechen war can be stopped only if the Russian military and Kadyrov’s special guards stop repressing civilians. 18 percent follow the official propaganda, which argues that new job opportunities and improved living conditions can help bring peace to Chechnya. In fact, it is a debatable assertion – one that could be described as wishful thinking and the easiest way out of a difficult problem, rather then a real solution. The fact that only 18 percent think that economic measures could help shows that most Russians are not so naïve as to believe this.
It is also interesting to note that 64 percent of Russians support negotiations with the separatists and only 21 percent reject this and want the hostilities in Chechnya to be continued until the insurgency is destroyed.
The results of the Levada survey demonstrate that the Kremlin’s propaganda is not as effective as the Russian authorities would like for it to be. There are several reasons why this is so.
First, despite the great efforts by the official media, reports on hostilities in Chechnya and other Caucasian regions prevail over other news. Russians simply ignore false reports about the normalization of life in Chechnya and pay attention only if they hear about new explosions and new ambushes in the region. Russian media sources are required to broadcast such news from time to time, and such reports destroy the image of Chechnya as a peaceful place – the image that the authorities have long been trying to create.
Despite the mass media, many Russians have other, alternative sources of information about the situation in Chechnya, including the military (contract soldiers, conscripts and officers), police and FSB officers, etc., all of whom have served in the region. From the Baltic Sea to the Far East, there are thousands and thousands of officials who go to Chechnya every year “to combat terrorism.” Each time they come back home, their loved ones, friends and neighbors learn what is really going on in the Russian South. Many of the servicemen come back in zinc coffins; many others return alive, but with limbs missing.
Experience shows that no measures to hide the truth about the continuing war can work for a long time. Even Soviet propaganda was unable to hide the truth about the Soviet army’s casualties in Afghanistan. Putin’s propaganda can never be as effective as the Soviet variety: it is leaking all the time and, as a result, Russians continue to believe that the Chechen war has not yet ended.