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Russia: Public Opinion Edges Toward Peace In Chechnya

The latest polls in Russia show a possible change in the public's attitude toward the war in Chechnya. Until recently, the public had overwhelmingly supported Russia's military action in the breakaway republic. But with the approach of a possible assault on Grozny this weekend, some Russians hope for peace negotiations.

Moscow, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The perception that virtually all Russians support the harshest military actions against Chechnya may be an exaggeration. In polls made public this week by the respected All-Russian Center for Public Opinion (VTSIOM), about half of respondents said they oppose an all-out war.

Almost one in five Russians surveyed (17 percent) say they are against the war if it costs too many soldiers' lives. And close to half (45 percent) say they think they would support peace negotiations if the idea were proposed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, or even by the far less popular President Boris Yeltsin.

The results do not mean most Russians have become doves. More than a third (38 percent) of respondents said they support the war in Chechnya "whatever the price." However, the polling center's director, Yuri Levada, said the polls show that a "crack can appear in the monolithic support of the war."

Other experts share his view. Anton Lerner is another VTSIOM researcher who specializes in qualitative studies of public opinion, as opposed to the quantitative evaluations shown by polls. Lerner says that his studies, too, show a budding tendency toward rejection of the war.

This evolution, he says, is mainly restricted to the elite. Lerner says educated Russians are starting to believe the military's conduct of the war in Chechnya runs contrary to their own morals.

"Russians are tired of the war. It's been lasting for almost three months already. And for now, it hasn't given any visible results. In that sense, especially in the educated layers, among the intelligentsia, certain doubts, skepticism has appeared. [They have begun to] notice the silence of the media about what is happening to the Chechens. Already certain notes were struck where people try to justify or at least to look for a rational explanation for the terrorists' actions. [They say to themselves], those people must have been pushed over the edge, they would not blow up houses for nothing. People are asking themselves, are we right about Chechnya? Shouldn't we begin negotiations?"

Lerner says that, as war fatigue sets in, the use of even a successful war as a political tool declines. The growth of Putin's popularity on the strength of his war achievements alone will soon stagnate, Lerner says, as the war becomes a routine affair.

Analysts have predicted that such a turn in public opinion would come only once Russian soldiers started dying in great numbers. But Lerner says massive casualties are not necessary to change people's minds. He says one or two casualties in a small town are enough to trigger the memory of the first, extremely bloody, Chechen war. So why did Russians support the war in the first place if inconclusive results and a few casualties are enough to sway them? After all, according to another recent VTSIOM poll, 60 percent of Russians feel hatred and a longing for revenge against the Chechens, whom authorities have blamed for fatal apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere a few months ago.

Lerner explains that approval of the war in Chechnya has been an expression of approval for the government's pledge to restore order. Chechnya, he says, has become a symbol.

"[Russians think that] if Russia can handle this problem, then Russia can restore order everywhere. Chechnya is not only a question of separatism. Chechnya also raises the question of criminality, of corruption in Russian power structures. [Chechnya] is a [reflection] of everything people associate with today's Russia, with the situation in Russia today. Chechnya takes on the form of a kind of symbol, and restoring order in Chechnya first and foremost means restoring order in Russia. Public opinion doesn't support the war so much as [the idea] of restoring order."

One prominent politician, the reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, seems to have grasped this need to promise order in a speech recently when he promised a war against corruption coupled with a possibility of peace in the North Caucasus. Lerner thinks, however, that for now, support for peace is still too embryonic to win any candidate political points in December 19 parliamentary elections.