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Analysis From Washington -- A Chance For Chechnya

Washington, June 18 (RFE/RL) - More Russians now favor giving complete independence to Chechnya than voted for Boris Yeltsin in Sunday's first round of the Russian presidential elections.

According to still preliminary results, Boris Yeltsin received some 34 percent of the vote against nine rivals and "none of the above" to place first in the first round. He now faces a run-off against Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov.

But an exit poll of 7,439 Russian voters at 118 voting places around the country showed that 35 percent of Russians now favor giving Chechnya complete independence, that 41 percent are in favor of some power sharing arrangement in Chechnya, and that only one Russian in five is currently prepared to maintain Russian control of that region by force.

Obviously, an exit poll is not the same thing as a vote. There is the inevitable margin for error, Russians still inexperienced with pollsters may not have been completely open outside the voting booth, and this poll, although conducted by Russians, was sponsored by foreign news organizations, something that may also have affected the outcome.

Nonetheless, this poll result is important because it suggests both that Yeltsin may have good reason to avoid moving too far toward the nationalist position and that some in the West may have overread Russia's commitment to keep Chechnya part of the Russian Federation regardless of the cost.

Given that most of the nearly one-third of Russian voters who did not choose Yeltsin or Zyuganov in the first round voted for Russian nationalist parties, both Yeltsin and Zyuganov are virtually certain to appeal to that constituency as they seek to win the second round.

The exit poll on Chechnya suggests, however, that neither man -- and especially Yeltsin who ordered the Russian army into Chechnya -- can afford to take too hard a line on that question. Zyuganov has been very critical of the war, and Yeltsin clearly felt that he had to pose as a peace maker in the past month.

This poll result suggests that both men are likely to continue their respective positions, a pattern that may give an opening for real and more serious negotiations between Moscow and the Chechen leadership of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

It might even prompt Yeltsin to nullify the attempts by the pro-Moscow authorities in Chechnya to hold elections there over the past week, a step that would be very popular among the Chechens and that could help to restart the peace process.

Equally important, the poll suggests that the international community may soon be forced to reexamine its position on Chechnya. That position -- which was summarized on Sunday by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott -- holds that Chechnya has been and will remain part and parcel of the Russian Federation and that the conflict there must be settled by peaceful negotiations.

Squaring that particular circle, however, has not proven to be easy. And what is striking is that ever more Russians, if not yet the international community, have concluded that they would be willing to sacrifice Russian control in order to get peace.

Obviously, these attitudes, although widespread, do not yet form a majority of Russian public opinion. But their existence -- and the relatively smaller number of Russians who are prepared to continue the war -- seem certain to send some powerful shockwaves through the Russian political system, Chechnya, and possibly the international political system.