Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 29

The July 26 issue of the pro-democracy weekly Obshchaya Gazeta featured a roundtable discussion, chaired by the newspaper’s editor, Egor Yakovlev, devoted to the current conflict. “We support the idea,” Yakovlev observed, “of a roundtable on the problem of Chechnya. We consider assisting the antiwar movement to be our civic duty.”

One of the most active participants in the discussion was Russian polling specialist Lev Gudkov. During the previous 1994-1996 conflict, Gudkov noted “a decisive majority [of the Russian public], more than 60 percent, had assessed the war as a stupid improvisation.” The present 1999-2001 war, Gudkov continued, is not in fact an “antiterrorist operation.” “In my point of view,” he said, “it serves [primarily] as a means of retaining a collapsing structure of the Soviet type. It serves to block change…. Never over the past thirteen years during which we have been conducting opinion surveys have we seen such an explosion of hatred, fear and wounded pride [on the part of the Russian public].”

“In October-November 1999,” Gudkov went on, “the number of supporters of the war exceeded by three times the number of adherents of peaceful negotiations. It is evident, however, that, with time, fatigue and disappointment in the war have been growing, while the number of those advocating negotiations has been growing. Precisely one year later, in October-November 2000, the number of supporters and opponents of the war had become roughly equal…. But, beginning in February of 2001, for the first time there took place a break in public opinion. From that time on, the weight of the ‘hawks’ falls off and antiwar sentiment begins to predominate…. Three-quarters of those contacted [by pollsters] today say that Putin has not resolved a single task [in Chechnya] which he posed. The war has entered into a partisan phase and has become uncontrollable. A continuation of the war, according to public opinion, will lead not only to the disintegration of the army–on which, incidentally, everyone agrees–but also to the disintegration of Russian society itself.”

Gudkov also underscored the noteworthy fact that, “If in the first war the more educated, more tolerant, pro-Western elements of society–the intelligentsia–were protesting, today it is the intelligentsia–people with the highest education, the most influential people–who support the war to the greatest degree. While there fall away and come out against the war precisely those who are socially fatigued by it. First of all, those who believe that the money [earmarked for the war] is going the-devil-knows-where, when it should be spent on health care or social services.”

The lawlessness of the federal forces based in Chechnya was a topic touched upon by a number of the participants. Journalist Bakhtiyar Akhmedkhanov, who, according to Egor Yakovlev, “has spent a majority of his time over the past two years in Chechnya,” was one of those who focused upon this development. “A new stage of the war,” he emphasized, “is the disintegration of the [Russian] army. The army has become uncontrollable. That never happened previously. The federals are killing each other for control over oil wells; there are gunfights among them, and people are being killed.” In Groznesnsky Village District, for example, he said, “contract soldiers are prepared to pay thousands of dollars to serve precisely there, where there is oil…. I don’t know what Putin wants. But I know what the generals who are there want: They want money.”

Svetlana Gannushkina, a leading specialist on refugee affairs, drew attention to the current much-publicized trial in Rostov-on-Don of Colonel Yury Budanov: “Explaining his relationship to his victim, [El’za] Kungaeva, he [Budanov] said approximately the following: They tell me that Chechens are citizens of Russia, but they did not dispose me to believe that they are actually citizens of Russia. They told me that I was going to fight enemies who intended to beat the stuffing out of all Russians. Therefore I was able to relate in no other way to the Chechens.” As a contrast, Gannushkina then quoted from a decree issued to soldiers in the tsarist army during World War I, requiring them to treat enemy civilians with tact and respect. She also directed attention to the worrisome plight of Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. Plans for their coerced return to Chechnya should, she insisteed, be halted. The Duma factions Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, she noted, tried to achieve a parliamentary resolution banning such a coerced return, “but they failed to do so.”

A number of the participants in the roundtable spoke about perceived important shifts taking place among the Chechens themselves as a result of the conflict. “What is happening to the Chechen people?” asked Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Union of Journalists of Russia. “They are being destroyed on the territory of Chechnya. And when they go into the refugee camps in Ingushetia, they are being pressured back into Chechnya…. This is a rather large people. A people will not collectively commit suicide. It will seek the means to resolve its problems. And those means could turn out to be most unexpected and inauspicious for the Russian state.”

In a similar vein, human rights activist Lev Ponomarev observed: “Chechen society and Chechen refugees in Ingushetia are beginning more and more actively to come out against federal policy. The question concerns not only protest actions and mass hunger strikes. There is taking place an intensive process of self-organization and sociopolitical structuring of the non-combatant Chechen milieu.”

A Chechen discussant, Salambek Maigov, added: “Today in Chechnya people between the ages of 20 and 35 are coordinating their efforts. Throughout the entire republic, there are being created certain organizations which have a semi-legal or even, one may say, a semisecret character. Their consolidation is… occurring around an idea: the idea of how to save the people, how to extract it from the dead-end in which it finds itself. And not only because it has turned out that Russia is conducting the war to achieve the extermination of our people.”

And Maigov continued: “What is taking place today [the Chechen] people perceive as a genocide. After all, what words do the [Russian] officers and soldiers use during the mopping up operations? ‘I will not permit you to reproduce yourselves.’ ‘I have come here to kill as many of you as is possible.’ Half of the men who are taken into custody return from the filtration points with mutilations in the region of their genitals, forgive me for mentioning such details. The sole alternative to such a situation can only be a general uprising of Chechens, an Intifada.” Igor Yakovenko likewise predicted that “Russia will receive in the North Caucaus a full-scale national liberation movement [of Chechens].”

These comments prompted polling specialist Gudkov to warn: “The situation of a general explosion of the type of an Intifada seems to me to be extraordinarily dangerous. It would lead to changes in Chechen society which would be catastrophic for it. An Intifada within Chechen society would bring to life leaders who would be destructive for Chechnya. For this reason, peace negotiations are needed by Chechnya no less than by Russia.”

All of the participants in the roundtable were in agreement that peace negotiations by the Russian government with Aslan Maskhadov represented the only possible way out of the current bloody morass. The Chechen participant, Salambek Maigov, affirmed: “Personally, I know everyone who is fighting today. According to my information, Maskhadov controls more than 80 percent of those who are under arms.” “For me,” Duma deputy and former Russian human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalev affirmed, “the unquestionable partner for the Kremlin, at least in the beginning stages of the negotiations, is Maskhadov.”

The well-known author and essayist Arkady Vaksberg emphasized that an end to the conflict was above all in the interests of the Putin administration itself. “Our present regime,” he pointed out, “is infinitely pragmatic. All arguments of a moral, human, psychological or judicial nature will not have the slightest effect on it…. All conclusions about genocide, about how the war is being conducted against an ethnic group, about how all of this is the greatest suffering and unimaginable sacrifice–all of this is unquestionable, but it has no effect on anyone. How can one have an effect on such a regime? Through the cynical and pragmatic idea that a continuation of this war-which I call a punitive action–is unprofitable for the regime itself, is harmful for it. Not harmful for Chechnya… and not harmful even for Russia, because I doubt that the interests of Russia, apart from demagogic slogans and patriotic invocations, interest any of them. But if the regime were to grasp that a continuing of the war will shake it, will prevent the realization of certain of its plans, then that could influence events in a needed direction.”

Both Vaksberg and Sergei Kovalev underlined the key role of Western public opinion in bringing about a peace settlement: “The government leaders of the West,” Vaksberg noted, “do not today want to pressure Russia because of Chechnya. They are also pragmatists. They want to cooperate with this regime; interests of international security are important to them, and they understand well that they have to do with a nuclear power, no matter how weak it has become.” “But public opinion in the West,” Vaksberg went on, “is another matter. If, with regard to the Balkans, there are different points of view in Western public opinion, in relation to Chechnya there is unanimity. I judge this by the example of France, which I know well.”

“If there is any basis for hope,” Kovalev remarked, “then it is only in our influence on Western public opinion, so that we can prompt them to exert pressure on their governments. In such a case, [official] political circles in the West will be forced to put pressure on the government of Russia.”

To sum up, the Obshchaya Gazeta roundtable offers a useful snapshot of the views of progressive Russian intellectuals, journalists and politicians as they cast about for ways to bring an end to a sanguinary and costly conflict which will soon have lasted for two full years.