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Russia: Chechen Independence Anniversary Draws Few Supporters

  • Francesca Mereu

Ten years ago this week, Chechnya declared its independence from Russia. The anniversary yesterday was used as an opportunity for non-governmental organizations opposed to the Chechen war to hold a rally. What organizers may not have been prepared for, however, was the low turnout: only 30 people, including journalists.

Moscow, 7 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago this week -- following the failed August 1991 coup attempt in the Soviet Union -- Chechnya formally declared its independence.

Since that declaration, which no nation has ever officially recognized, tens of thousands of Chechens and Russian soldiers have died in two bloody conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have had to flee their homes. Much of the capital of the breakaway republic, Grozny, has been destroyed. And the fighting shows no signs of ending.

Yesterday, to remember the declaration, various non-governmental organizations prepared what they hoped would be a large rally in the Russian capital, Moscow, to show public disapproval of the war.

But instead of drawing thousands of people, the rally drew only around 30 people in all, including journalists.

It's not clear why more people didn't turn out for the rally, but journalists and organizers offered their opinions.

Salambek Maigov, the head of the NGO Chechen Solidarity and a former candidate for president of the breakaway republic, says the low turnout reflects a feeling among Russians that they lack power and cannot force their leaders to change their minds:

"People don't think that public opinion can influence the decisions of those in power. As far as Chechen people are concerned, they are just afraid to come to such meetings [where the police can hold them]."

Maigov says he is going to organize another demonstration in Nazran (Ingushetia) later this month (15 September). In this way, he says he hopes to focus people's attention on what is going on in Chechnya.

His point is echoed by Vika Morozova, a 25-year-old Moscow resident. She says people are losing faith in the idea that they can change things through their actions. She tells our correspondent that going to a demonstration, for example, cannot help to resolve a problem.

"I don't think that [going to] demonstrations helps to settle a problem. People in power decide all. It is impossible to change the situation."

Following the 1991 declaration of independence, Chechens under the leadership of Dzhokhar Dudaev -- a flamboyant former Soviet bomber pilot -- seized control of the breakaway republic and held new elections. Dudaev was chosen as president.

Russia refused to recognize the declaration, saying Chechnya had always been under its control. Russian officials reasoned that if the Chechens were allowed to declare independence, other parts of Russia might want their autonomy, too.

In December 1994, Russia's then-president, Boris Yeltsin, ordered troops to enter the breakaway republic.

Chechen combatants under Dudaev's direction managed for two years to put up tough resistance to Russian forces. But in April 1996, a Russian missile killed Dudaev, leading many in Moscow to believe that they had finally gotten the upper hand in the war.

Dudaev, however, was replaced by Aslan Maskhadov, who led a counterattack that retook Grozny.

Tired of fighting, the Russians agreed to a temporary peace but did not agree to Chechen independence.

Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya, but the problems in Chechnya didn't end. The chaotic situation created by two years of war was difficult to control. Local Chechen leaders refused to cooperate with the president if it did not suit their interests.

In September 1999, apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities left more than 300 civilians dead. Authorities at the time blamed the blasts on Chechen guerrillas, and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered a new invasion.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a journalist with the biweekly "Novaya Gazeta." He blames the media and says that, at the moment, only a few media outlets are even bothering to cover the war. He says most prefer to avoid the issue because they don't want to have problems with the authorities.

Kagarlitsky says that during the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, journalists felt they could talk more freely about it and, consequently, people were more conscious about what was going on. Now, he says, people don't have any information about the war:

"The situation is quite peculiar now. During the first Chechen war, the media used to rouse anti-militaristic feelings. [Now,] during the second Chechen war, we are in an information vacuum. We [journalists] don't have the chance to speak to people through television or through other media. In such a situation, it is logical that people don't know what is going on."

Antonina Ivanova, also from Moscow, says she feels people may be afraid. She says she does not feel safe while participating in demonstrations.

"I don't like to go to demonstrations. I don't like to because I don't know [what can happen]. I'm afraid about my security. [In our country,] anything can happen. There could be a blast...anything."

Maigov says he believes that, after such a long period of brutality, Chechens and Russians cannot live together anymore.

"Today, the war and the violence have caused a huge gulf between [Russia and Chechnya]. In other words, what used to join together Russia and Chechnya has been destroyed. I'm talking about economic, transportation, and demographic links. The abyss is [now so] huge that I can't see any possibilities for Russia and Chechnya to live under the same state."

The fighting goes on. News agencies reported yesterday -- 10 years to the day since Chechnya declared its independence -- that five police officers were injured in Chechnya when a bomb blew up their patrol vehicle.