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Russia: Putin's Statements On Chechnya May Reflect Public Opinion

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian President Vladimir Putin's vitriolic speech against Chechen rebels issued on the heels of this week's EU-Russia summit may have surprised the West, but at home, the remarks have caused barely a ripple. Instead of causing embarrassment, Putin's coarse language and denunciation of the rebels as murderers is viewed as giving voice to the public's views on Chechnya. The president is seen to be actively projecting the country's interests, while the European Union simply refuses to accept "international terrorism" as a threat. But by chastising those calling for a peaceful solution in Chechnya, is Russia threatening to export its brutal conflict abroad?

Moscow, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western leaders attending this week's EU-Russia summit in Brussels may have hoped Vladimir Putin would tone down the angry rhetoric he has used to defend Russia's three-year campaign in Chechnya. But the Russian president did just the opposite.

Speaking in front of European Union leaders at a post-summit press conference on 11 November, Putin delivered an angry diatribe reminiscent of his 1999 campaign promise to "wipe out" Chechen rebels "in the outhouse." Responding to a question from a reporter on whether Russia's assault against terrorists would also eliminate portions of Chechnya's civilian population, Putin did not mince words, even leveling at the journalist a thinly veiled threat of castration. "I think you are from a country that is, in fact, an ally of the United States of America. You are in danger. They speak about the necessity of killing all kafirs [nonbelievers], all non-Muslims, all 'cross-bearers,' as they call them. If you are a Christian, you are in danger. But if you reject your religion and become an atheist, you are also slated for liquidation, according to their way of thinking and their rules. You are in danger. If you decide to become a Muslim, even this will not save you, because they consider traditional Islam to be hostile to their aims. Even in this case, you are in danger. If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We are a multidenominational country. We have specialists in this question [circumcision]. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way so that afterward, nothing else will grow," Putin said.

Russian officials rushed to say the president was tired after the summit -- during which both sides struck a deal on the thorny question of Kaliningrad -- and hadn't been expecting a question criticizing his Chechnya policy. But it was clear the query struck a presidential nerve. Putin's answer betrayed massive frustration about European insistence that Moscow seek a political solution in Chechnya.

Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chief Dmitrii Rogozin, a Putin adviser who attended the Brussels news conference, said in Moscow today that the correspondent's question was "insulting" and a "provocation." "I think that the positive [atmosphere] at the summit itself was unexpectedly and consciously ruined at the press conference, where there were too many questions tied to Chechnya," Rogozin said.

Rogozin said Putin's strong remarks were only meant to stress that Russia's allies abroad are under threat from terrorism, adding with a shrug that "it came out how it came out." He also defended Putin by saying Chechnya was not on the official summit agenda.

But as the EU appeared to distance itself from the comments, the response in Moscow was far more subdued.

For one thing, Putin's tough statements on Chechnya are nothing new. The Kremlin's already unyielding stance hardened dramatically following last month's hostage crisis, an event that -- ending in the deaths of at least 128 hostages -- shocked the country and brought Chechnya once again to the forefront of global attention.

Since then, Putin has ratcheted up his rhetoric, portraying the conflict as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism as Russian forces stepped up reprisals in the breakaway region.

Putin's outburst follows Moscow's bitter criticism of Copenhagen for allowing a Chechen conference to take place in Denmark.

Russian officials delighted in signs that their criticism seemed to be heeded.

When Putin refused to travel to the Danish capital for this week's EU summit, Copenhagen footed the bill to move the event to Brussels. Denmark also arrested a Chechen separatist envoy whom Moscow accuses of terrorism.

The Russian government has also begun asking other countries, including Qatar, Turkey, and Georgia, to extradite Chechen rebels.

Putin, who employs aggressive tones in most of his public appearances, issued stern statements on Chechnya and dressed down reporters over the issue even before the hostage crisis. But his latest, and rudest, outburst came amid the glare of major international diplomacy.

During the EU summit, leaders signed an agreement on travel rules for those living in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which will be surrounded by EU states after an expansion planned for 2004.

Moscow bitterly opposed the introduction of a visa regime for Russians seeking to travel from Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia and saw the ensuing standoff as a test case for cooperation with European countries.

The Kremlin hailed the deal, which will issue Kaliningraders transit passes for travel to Russia proper. Russian analysts and media, however, saw the agreement as a defeat for Moscow.

But the Russian press uncharacteristically let Putin's remarks on Chechnya speak for themselves instead of providing the usual commentary. The Kremlin has cracked down on critical media since Putin assumed office, and the decision may have had as much to do with self-preservation as backing the official line.

The official ITAR-TASS news agency avoided the issue altogether, announcing in a headline that "Russia-EU summit shows Russia's rising prestige."

"Izvestiya" newspaper conveyed the official line that "Europe has become deaf" to Russia's warnings about terrorism.

But some papers, such as the respected business daily "Kommersant," took an ironic tone. "Kommersant" called Putin's outburst an "unwise" move ending in "serious scandal."

But do Putin's shocking comments signal a move to boost the Chechen campaign to the top of Russia's foreign-policy agenda?

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov, the director of Moscow's Center for Political Studies, said Putin is not trying to "internationalize" the conflict in Chechnya -- not least because he has insisted the war is a domestic problem in which other countries should not meddle.

Markov said the war itself is instead becoming part of the international terrorist threat, and Putin is therefore trying to attract help from abroad, in part by telling EU leaders about an alleged plan by Chechen separatists to set up a "totalitarian" Islamic regime in the North Caucasus mountains, where Chechnya is located. "For the necessary help in the war against terrorism, Vladimir Putin needs help, first of all, with the diplomatic isolation of the rebels' political leaders, and also for there to be pressure on the centers of fundraising for terrorism in Russia," Markov said.

Markov said European states do not understand the Kremlin's reasoning only because they have yet to confront the type of terrorism with which Russia has to deal. Moscow therefore wants to align itself with states that favor a military solution, to counteract the position that antiterrorism efforts should, above all, address the social and economic inequity from which acts of violence often stem. "We are witnessing the formation of a coalition between the United States, Israel, and Russia, allies for a hard line toward terrorism," Markov said.

Markov said both the political elite and the public in Russia back Putin's stance. Both segments of society support the Kremlin's stern line that an ultimate political solution in Chechnya must involve not talks with the separatist leadership but a referendum on the region's future and new elections -- processes critics say the Kremlin will use to try to legitimize its own appointed leadership.

According to a recent poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), 49 percent of respondents said Russian troops are not taking tough enough measures in Chechnya; only 9 percent said the military was acting too harshly. Putin's approval rating following the hostage crisis has meanwhile remained steady at a whopping 77 percent.

Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center meanwhile pointed out that Putin's statements during the EU summit were more hard-line than his words earlier in the week when he met with pro-Moscow Chechen politicians.

But Ryabov downplayed Putin's outburst, saying it was an emotional reaction that does not necessarily reflect policy change. "Judging by what happened, Putin got very tired of all those questions about Islamic terrorism and to some degree his nerves gave out, and he spoke in that tone during that whole episode, with his invitation to the journalist to Moscow and with the resulting actions," Ryabov said.

Ryabov said Putin's stance on Chechnya during the summit may have simply represented a tactical maneuver meant to keep the issue of Chechnya from becoming a major part of the summit. "He decided to react sternly, describing the [Chechen] problem entirely as international terrorism and announcing the necessity of a strong opposition to such international terrorism," Ryabov said.

Ryabov concluded that Putin's statements should not be used to make any long-term conclusions about the course of the Kremlin's Chechnya policy.

Putin toned down his rhetoric yesterday during meetings with the Norwegian and German heads of state in Oslo but continued to brush aside advice over seeking peace in Chechnya. "The problem is so complicated," he said in a relatively subdued voice, "that no one can give really good advice."