Russians grow weary of war Fighting in Chechnya takes toll on trust in democratic system

August 25, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The 20-month war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya has fueled increasing cynicism among Russians about their young democracy and its leaders.

And up to a point, the national shame of the war recalls American views of Vietnam a generation ago, minus the idealism that converted anti-war cynicism into public activism.

Natasha Cherkashin, for example, considers herself a pacifist. The performance artist says she's sick of the gore on the nightly news, and she's disgusted with Russian leaders who led the nation into the bloody dispute over a piece of ground long inhabited by Chechens.

But her pacifist solution includes no idealistic care for the Chechens.

"If Chechens don't want to be Russian, we should let them go. But don't let them come here. Put a fence around them and don't let them in or out."

This is the kind of bitter anti-war sentiment festering around the Chechen conflict, which has become a symbol of Russia's post-Soviet failures.

Last week's very public Kremlin power struggle over the chain of command in Chechnya between national security adviser Alexander I. Lebed and Russian military field commanders suggested a national leadership powerless to deliver what the majority of Russians say they want: to end the war.

And in their newfound democracy, Russians are reacting to the war in ways that never could have been possible before the collapse of the Soviet Union:

Draft dodging is known to be widespread among young Russian men, who often ignore their draft notices or buy medical deferments.

The top pop song on Russian radio for much of the spring and summer was the anti-war ballad, "Kombat."

One of the most popular movies in theaters and video stores, "Prisoner of the Caucasus," takes the side of the Chechens.

The news media are almost unanimously against the war.

Polls show Russians consistently rank the war as the nation's worst problem, even beyond grim economic conditions. And between 60 percent and 75 percent want to end the war even if it means giving the Chechens some level of independence.

"Russians hate the war not because they care about the Chechens, whom they mostly perceive as criminals and terrorists," says Anna Andrenkova of the polling firm CESSI. "Russians perceive this war as a loss of national pride that started with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The war shows the powerlessness of the Russian army that we put so much pride and money in. And it shows that our leaders lack the ability to solve the problem."

So far there have been no demonstrations in the streets.

"In Russia everything is unstable. Our society is becoming poorer and poorer; that's why most people -- including the intelligentsia who would lead an anti-war movement -- are just trying to survive and can't organize meetings of protest," observes Alexander Kabakov, the managing editor of Moscow News.

"The real protest is going on in the media, which is very strongly against the war," he said.

Defeat and humiliation

Chechnya, for Russians, is "just another humiliating episode during the last 10 years that they want to forget as soon as possible," says Artyom Troitsky, editor of the Russian Playboy magazine, who supports the Chechen independence cause.

The national mood has been fed by an unprecedented press coverage showing humiliating defeats of a military out of gas, ammunition, spare parts and morale -- even as the Kremlin reported otherwise. More than once, Russian military commanders haven't done what they were ordered to do.

In the last 10 days, Chechnya was the backdrop for the power struggle that left Russians -- and indeed, the world -- wondering who was in control behind the walls of the Kremlin fortress.

The nation cringed as international outrage was heaped on the Kremlin when Russian military commanders ignored security chief Lebed's peace negotiations and went to the brink of an all-out aerial attack on the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Lebed, an entertainingly but brutally frank former general, marched earnestly into his role as Chechen envoy two weeks ago to bring home a promised cease-fire. But Yeltsin and some field commanders appeared to be undercutting the general's popular peace efforts.

'Feeling of helplessness'

Yeltsin was re-elected last month on a campaign platform in which peace in Chechnya was his main promise. But Russians have been disappointed by the president's performance on Chechnya.

"Voters had serious and strong feelings about the conflict. More than half think Yeltsin should be participating personally in peace negotiations," says Lev Gukov, an analyst with the Russian Center for Study of Public Opinion.

"But as the war goes on and commanders of it seem to act separately from what the people desire, a feeling of helplessness and impotence is growing in the common man."

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