Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 3

Journalists and human rights activists alike warned that what they believed happened to Babitsky could be a harbinger of what Putin was planning to do after his likely victory in the March 26 presidential election–regardless of the acting president’s public claims to support democracy and oppose a return to the past. But while journalists and rights activists–including veteran campaigners like Yelena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov’s widow–initiated or signed open letters and petitions, and approximately 1,500 of them gathered for a protest at Moscow’s Pushkin Square, Putin remained popular. Indeed, while his numbers “dipped” to 48 percent in one poll, this was probably due to his reported backing for increased taxes on vodka (from which he subsequently backed off) and not indignation over the Chechen war and moves against free speech.

Indeed, a majority of Russian backed or at least tolerated the government’s increasingly radical nationalism, expressed not only in Putin’s Chechnya policy, but his decree reviving the Soviet-era practices of mandatory military training for school boys and putting political commissars back in the armed forces. The government’s nationalist bandwagon was undoubtedly given further momentum by its announcement that federal forces had driven the rebels out of Chechnya’s capital and into its southern mountains. The authorities, thus, paid scant attention to growing criticism from Western human rights groups over Babitsky and widespread reports of looting, rape and torture of civilians by Russian army and security forces in Chechnya. The Federal Security Service, for one, simply fell back on tradition: Unnamed “Arab countries,” it warned, had sent US$1.5 billion to Russia to lobby the Chechen cause in the Russian media and to “destabilize the situation in the country.” In the State Duma, deputies from the pro-Putin Unity party and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation rejected a proposal by liberals to put Babitsky’s plight on the Duma’s agenda.