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Russia: Antiwar Movement Works To Gain Momentum

  • Gregory Feifer

Moscow's war in Chechnya has dragged on for 3 1/2 years with no end in sight. But the devastating campaign, which has claimed huge numbers of casualties on both sides, has raised barely a murmur of protest from the Russian public. Some 60 percent of Russians now favor a peaceful resolution to the war, a trend that Russia's small antiwar community hopes will finally tip the scales in their favor. As RFE/RL reports, they say public protest is the only way to force an end to Russia's war in Chechnya.

Moscow, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several hundred protesters gathered in central Moscow over the weekend braving subfreezing temperatures to proclaim "No to war in Iraq and Chechnya." The protesters were denouncing war in general and Russia's campaign in Chechnya in particular.

The conflict is now in its fourth year and has claimed thousands of lives on both sides. The protest's organizers argue that the government has run out of excuses for not seeking a political solution to the crisis. They say it is time for Russian officials to sit down at the negotiating table with separatist militants and find a peaceful way out of the seemingly intractable conflict.

One of the organizers is Lev Ponomarev, a veteran human rights activist who heads the group For Human Rights. Ponomarev, a mild-mannered 61-year-old, has almost single-handedly kept Russia's protest movement alive over the past several years.

Ponomarev says most Russians believe war is not the only way to resolve the protracted conflict in Chechnya. He cited a recent poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) showing that 63 percent of respondents favor peace talks with Chechen separatists.

Ponomarev called that figure, nearly two-thirds of Russian society, a "silent majority" the government cannot ignore, adding that he hopes to mobilize them behind protests to be held every two months. "We are calling them into the streets because we know international experience shows wars are ended precisely when hundreds of thousands take to the streets," Ponomarev said. "That happened in France, when France pulled out of Algeria. That also happened in the United States, when it ended the war in Vietnam. It seems there's no other solution."

But last weekend's modest turnout, if anything, might help the government's cause more than Ponomarev's by showing that the protest movement remains all but dead.

The Liberal Russia and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) parties were billed as co-organizers of the protest, but representatives of SPS, which enthusiastically backed the beginning of the war in 1999, did not even show up.

The rally follows a previous one last December, which organizers say attracted 700 people -- tiny by most standards, but praised by Ponomarev as significantly larger than usual.

The activist said that one of the reasons for the low turnout at antiwar protests is that the country's main media outlets, especially the top two state-controlled television stations, barely cover the Chechen conflict and are discouraged from carrying criticism of the government. "I know that a very high-ranking bureaucrat from the Kremlin administration, while criticizing some people for upholding our manifesto [on an end to the war], ended the conversation saying: 'O.K., to hell with you. Hold your protest. We won't show it on television anyway.' That's the logic of this Kremlin bureaucrat, you see? He controls television," Ponomarev said.

Those Russians following the war in Chechnya get news about protests from posters printed by rally organizers and from the few media outlets that carry news about the breakaway republic, chiefly Ekho Moskvy radio. Ponomarev said that even small-circulation newspapers that once printed announcements about upcoming protests, notably "Novaya gazeta," did not agree to run advertisements for last weekend's protest.

Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov is co-head of the Liberal Russia party, which helped organize the weekend rally. He said that not only society, but also parliament, has failed to confront the issue of Chechnya, adding that the conflict is unconstitutional because it was not sanctioned by the Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Yushenkov said that the only time the Duma tried to call the government to account over Chechnya came during the first war in 1994, when legislators discussed a resolution to press then-President Boris Yeltsin to introduce martial law in the breakaway region. The attempt failed. "Both the Kremlin and deputies in the State Duma were scared by their own audacity in demanding that authorities observe their own constitution and laws," Yushenkov said.

Yushenkov said the antiwar movement will likely remain small for now, but he added that he hopes it will gather force by spring.

That is a view shared by several of the weekend protesters who spoke to RFE/RL. Aleksandr, 42, said the lack of widespread interest is no excuse to stand by silently as the war continues with no resolution in sight. He said that he expects a future "critical mass" of antiwar protesters to ultimately stem the tide of the war. He also expects violent incidents such as last year's hostage taking by Chechen rebels, which shocked the country, to cause a shift in Russian public opinion. "This war is not for any kind of normal goals but a war for the ruling elite to grow fatter," Aleksandr said. "What's more, questions of nationality can't be solved by war."

Lyuba, a 20-year-old peace activist, handed out leaflets during the protest. "I'm against the war in Chechnya and against the amoral conduct of our [parliamentary] deputies," she said.

Dmitrii, 35, said he came to the rally to protest the actions of the Russian military, which he said is a "prison" for draftees. "I'm just shocked by the passivity of our people. It's horrible: the attitude of all Russians to the Chechen war. Everyone keeps silent and does nothing. It's a terrible situation, of course," Dmitrii said.

Yushenkov, meanwhile, expressed a common complaint about the Kremlin's plans to carry out a referendum on a new Chechen constitution in March. The government says the scheme, which allows Russian troops to vote but is likely to exclude thousands of Chechen refugees, represents the only way forward for a political solution.

Critics say that only negotiations with rebels can work. Yushenkov said the referendum "will not be able to reflect the real will of Chechnya's population and is not likely to have any positive effect."

The legislator also criticized a recent draft resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the continent's most important human rights watchdog. Yushenkov said the draft resolution should have asked Russia to cancel, rather than postpone, the referendum.

The resolution finally passed by PACE was rather toothless. It expresses concern about the lack of "necessary conditions" for a proper referendum but makes no recommendations. This prompted the assembly's special envoy on Chechnya, Lord Frank Judd, to threaten to resign if the referendum goes ahead as scheduled.