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Russia: War In Chechnya Out Of Sight, Not Necessarily Out Of Mind, Ahead Of Vote

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian President Vladimir Putin began his first term with a promise to resolve the Chechen conflict once and for all. But after four years of fighting, Russia's second war in Chechnya in less than a decade has brought only further death and destruction. No end is in sight. Yet, on the eve of tomorrow's presidential elections, none of the candidates is talking about the war. Television news shows no footage of Chechnya's wrecked villages, its refugees, no footage of dead Russian soldiers. Out of sight, out of mind?

Moscow, 13 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On Pushkin Square, Moscow's traditional meeting place, Elizaveta Maksimova is demonstrating against the war in Chechnya.

Maksimova, a retired journalist, has held this vigil every Thursday since October 2002, when more than 100 people perished in a Moscow theater during a police operation to free them from their Chechen hostage-takers. The "Nord-Ost" incident -- after the name of the musical the victims had been attending -- galvanized Maksimova into taking action.

"We should have stopped this war long ago. No one needs this war. Nobody needs this. Soldiers are dying, and you feel sorry for them -- young people dying for nothing. Simply for nothing."
Since then, Moscow and other Russian cities have experienced a string of suicide bombings -- most blamed on Chechen "terrorists." Despite the adoption last year of a new constitution for Chechnya and the election of a president for the republic, the war continues unabated.

But unlike the first Chechen war, during the administration of President Boris Yeltsin, when independent television stations like NTV reported daily from the battlefront, Russia's second Chechen war has become almost virtual. NTV and other formerly private media outlets have returned to majority state control and no longer focus on bad news from the breakaway republic.

On the eve of tomorrow's presidential election, the conflict has become a non-issue in Russia, which is why Maksimova and her dozen cohorts strike a quixotic note with their antiwar placards on Pushkin Square.

But Maksimova thinks many Russians share her anguish, even if they do not show it.

"I believe Putin will have to stop this war soon, so we need to stand up and to demonstrate [our feelings] -- no matter how many or few of us there are -- because in fact many people share our thoughts and sentiments. Others don't have time to show it, but we can stand here every Thursday in order to say 'yes' to peace," Maksimova said.

Sanobar Shermatova, a journalist at the weekly "Moscow News," has covered both wars in Chechnya and -- unlike many of her colleagues -- continues to follow events in the republic closely. Shermatova says that, by now, the conflict has acquired a dynamic of its own that makes it hard to control.

Corrupt Russian army officers and local Chechen officials have a financial stake in keeping the war going, getting rich from black market deals on everything from oil to weapons sales. On the other side, many Chechen field commanders long ago stopped answering to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. With whom, then, can the Russian government negotiate?

These factors, she says, help to explain why none of the candidates running against Putin has challenged him on his Chechnya policy.

"The Chechen issue is a very delicate one for politicians, and I think they don't want to discuss it because, on the one hand, it is absolutely clear that the Kremlin is carrying out its own plan in Chechnya. And on the other hand, they themselves have nothing to offer. They have no counterproposal to the Kremlin's policies," Shermatova said.

Muscovites interviewed by RFE/RL on the streets of the Russian capital reflect this sense of helplessness. They say they are concerned about the Chechen conflict -- even if they no longer see the daily carnage on television. They fear the possibility of more terror attacks, such as last month's deadly metro bombing in Moscow that killed 39 people and injured more than 100 others.

But Chechnya does not figure in their electoral calculus because no politician offers a solution. Asked if she blamed Putin for the Chechen quagmire, Olga, a 42-year-old doctor, put it this way.

"He's not to blame personally. This is a problem that has existed on our territory since ancient times, and one person -- if it's Putin or someone else -- won't resolve it. It's a much deeper conflict. The causes are much more complex. But I don't see anyone among the candidates, I don't see a person who could truly resolve this problem," Olga said.

Sergei, a 28-year-old computer programmer, does not understand why Russian soldiers are dying in what he calls a senseless war.

"It's very bad. It's not normal what's happening there. We should have stopped this war long ago. No one needs this war. Nobody needs this. Soldiers are dying, and you feel sorry for them -- young people dying for nothing. Simply for nothing," Sergei said.

But Sergei does not blame the current president -- a man who once promised to flush all Chechen rebels "down the toilet." Sergei sees the hand of Russia's widely loathed business tycoons -- the oligarchs -- as fueling the continuing conflict.

"[It's] corruption, [Boris] Berezovskii, the oligarchs. The oligarchs are making stacks of money from this -- stacks. Although if [Putin] wanted to, I think maybe.... But I don't think it's his fault. No. It's other people who are guilty," Sergei said.

For now, aided by state-controlled media, Putin has successfully cultivated the image of a tough, but personable, can-do president. His decision to launch Russia's latest Chechen war is ascribed to others, and since the 11 September attacks against the U.S., the authorities have managed to portray the wave of attacks in Russia's cities as part of the global war on terrorism -- not the bitter fruits of a failed Chechnya policy.

"The entire world is battling international terrorism, as we know. America -- the most powerful country in the world -- is battling it. Russia is fighting it. So that's the logic here," Shermatova said.

This week's bombings in Madrid -- widely covered by Russian television -- will come as further confirmation of the global nature of terrorism.

For the moment, Maksimova appears to be tilting at windmills. But she'll be back on Pushkin Square next Thursday, she says, long after the electoral ballots are counted. And the Thursday after that. For as long as it takes.

Get comprehensive analysis and all the breaking news about the Russian elections at RFE/RL's dedicated webpage "Russia Votes 2003-04": http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection
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