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Russia: Search For Peace In Caucasus Follows Victory Day Violence

  • Francesca Mereu

Russians are still in shock over yesterday's explosion at a Victory Day parade that killed at least 41 people in the southern republic of Daghestan. RFE/RL spoke with people on the streets of Moscow today about the blast. Many of them say they believe it is linked to the unstable situation in the North Caucasus region and called on the Kremlin to begin serious talks with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which borders Daghestan, in an effort to stop the violence.

Moscow, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's explosion that killed at least 41 people and injured more than 140 in the Caspian port city of Kaspiisk has once again focused the attention of ordinary Russians on the situation in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which borders Daghestan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the attack on "terrorists" -- a common Kremlin term for Chechen rebels -- while in a statement, U.S. President George W. Bush called the attack an "evil act of terrorism."

In Grozny, the Chechen capital, Victory Day celebrations were also shattered by violence when rebels fired on Russian forces and civilians in a stadium. Four police officers were wounded in that attack.

Everyone in the Russian capital today was talking about the Victory Day violence. Most Muscovites who spoke with RFE/RL said they see the blast as being linked to the unstable situation in Chechnya. But if a few years ago most Russians said they backed their government's tough policy on the separatists, many of them are now urging Putin to begin a real political dialogue with the Chechens.

Ivan Vylkov is a 44-year-old engineer. He said that economic reforms in Chechnya, combined with political talks, can end the violence.

"Only a [good] economy can settle the situation [in Chechnya]. [Moreover,] our government should pay more attention to the situation in Chechnya. Everybody knows that the money [earmarked for Chechnya] does not go where it is supposed to go. We need to introduce order there. Only roundtables, talks, talks, and more talks are the way out of the situation," Vylkov said.

Seventy-seven-year-old Aleksandr Fedutinov is a former army colonel. He said people are fed up with listening to bad news about the North Caucasus. He believes it is time for the Russian and Chechen authorities to come to a political agreement.

"We need to come to an agreement with them. [The war] will never end there. It is even possible that Chechnya organized [the blast] in Daghestan. Nobody knows it for sure. The problem is so complicated. It is difficult to say. Sometimes [we hear] that [the military] caught some field commanders, but it is possible that nobody was caught. It is difficult to say," Fedutinov said.

But Fedutinov also said Chechnya shouldn't be granted independence from Russia. He said Chechnya is so unstable that, without Russian help, the situation in the republic will only deteriorate further.

When the second Chechen campaign began in 1999, most Russians called for the government to crack down on the separatists. Some even suggested building a wall around the breakaway republic. Now, according to Oleg Kusev, a Chechen analyst in RFE/RL's Russian Service, the mood of the Russian people has changed.

"Most Russians have now changed their minds about the Chechen war. The Russian electorate was very easily controlled in 1999, when [former President Boris] Yeltsin gave his power to Putin. Russians were persuaded that a tough hand had come into power. And the sentence 'to sweep them' [used by Putin] was very close to Russian [attitudes]. Now that the Chechen war is fulfilling another task for the Russian elites -- now that the Chechen war is a criminal business, a place where the military can receive orders and medals -- the Russian elite is not interested in the electorate anymore. They have forgotten about [the electorate]. They don't work on it anymore," Kusev said.

The change in the public mood is confirmed by a recent poll conducted by the Memorial human-rights organization, in which most of the respondents called for a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict.

Kusev said young people don't back the Chechen war anymore because they are afraid of being sent there while serving in the army. The news about the many Russian soldiers who are dying there, Kusev said, is giving people pause.

Renata Khusainova is 15 years old and said she is afraid of the war. She accused the Russian government of not taking appropriate measures to end the conflict.

"If [such attacks as in Daghestan] go on like that, there won't be any people left, and our country will be ruined. You don't have such things in other countries. Only in our country do you have it. Our government takes some measures, but it doesn't take appropriate steps. The situation is under the control [of our government], but sometimes it gets out of hand. Someone simply has an interest in seeing that the war doesn't end -- that's all," Khusainova said.

People interviewed on the street also accused Russian television of not giving viewers enough information about events in the North Caucasus.

Twenty-four-year-old Aleksia Vakhtina works as a corporate secretary. She thinks the information she gets about the war from the media is inadequate.

"We don't know anything about [the war in Chechnya]. This is the reason why sometimes people have nothing to say. Not very many people know about it because the television doesn't give any news about it. Men are fighting there. They are sent to serve in the army, and they better know [what is going on]," Vakhtina said.

The Russian Defense Ministry in March said that more than 2,300 Russian soldiers have been killed and 6,000 wounded since the start of the second Chechen war in August 1999. Casualties on the Chechen side have reportedly been even higher.