Under Western fire, Russians close ranks

From politicians to truck drivers, Russians are irked at criticism, lack of support on Chechnya campaign.

An early - and probably false - spring thaw bathed Moscow this week in unexpected sunshine and balmy breezes. But the political temperature is decidedly chilly as Russians react with anger, confusion, and suspicion to the latest Western censure over the war in Chechnya.

"Once I thought we could learn from Europe, but now I think we don't need teachers like these," says Kiril Petrenko, a print-shop designer out shopping in a downtown market. "They are hypocrites and fools. They have no idea how to help us."

The latest jolt to Russian national pride and self-esteem was twofold: Last week, United Nations human rights chief Mary Robinson returned from a visit to Chechnya complaining that the Kremlin had barred her from visiting five "filtration centers" - compared by human rights groups to concentration camps - and a community where Russian troops allegedly massacred civilians.

While she was careful to note that both sides in the conflict had been guilty of human rights abuses, Ms. Robinson said she was "shocked and appalled" by the harrowing accounts of Chechen civilians.

"I listened to testimony of summary executions, intimidation, looting by military personnel, disproportionate use of force, attacks on civilian convoys, rape, and other violations," she said.

In Moscow, President-elect Vladimir Putin declined to meet with Robinson, while another Kremlin official denounced her allegations as "a common lie."

Then at the end of the week, the 41-nation Council of Europe voted to strip Russia of its voting rights and initiate suspension proceedings because of "serious and documented" allegations of war crimes in the breakaway Muslim republic, now mainly under Russian control after a six-month campaign.

In most countries, the activities of the council, a talking-shop on human rights and democracy issues with no powers beyond moral suasion, scarcely warrant notice. But in Russia the news hit like a bomb.

"The council has made a colossal and historic mistake," thundered Gennady Seleznyov, Speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. "They have forgotten who they are dealing with. Russia can do very well without them, and we will rise up again to become a great world power."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist demagogue who often finds just the right words to capture a public mood, added: "I am very bored with Europe."

Alarmists are warning that Russia could be about to retire behind a new Iron Curtain, though that seems unlikely.

In fact, both the Kremlin and European leaders have made strenuous efforts this week to stress the hope that business will go on as usual. But leaders on both sides who think they can limit the ugly public- relations fallout from Chechnya and just get on with the decade-old project of integrating Russia with the rest of the world may be badly underestimating the depth of Russian public disaffection with Western ways. Since NATO's war one year ago against fellow Slavic, Orthodox Christian Yugoslavia, the mood has turned from sour, to bitter, to hostile.

A recent survey by the Boston-based Marttila Communications Group found that 69 percent of Russians polled think the West wants their economy to collapse. Fully 87 percent believe the United States is taking advantage of Russia's current weakness to expand its global influence. Only 13 percent regarded the US as a friend or ally; 28 percent described it as an enemy.

Worse, but 'let it be ours'

The flip side of Russian paranoia is the feeling that somehow the country is pursuing a different, and spiritually superior national destiny. "Russia cannot be understood with the mind, it can only be believed in," wrote Fyodor Tyutchev, a 19th- century philosopher. Russians today quote him constantly, with avid approval.

"Let it be worse, but let it be ours," Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov was fond of replying to young officers who complained about Russian technical backwardness. Kutuzov's armies chased the French invaders under Napoleon all the way back to Paris. In the 20th century, despite terrible losses, the Soviet Union did the same to Hitler. Many Russians insist that once again, in Chechnya, they are fighting for the common good despite the ingratitude and incomprehension of the West.

"We are fighting for all of Europe, against terrorism and extremism," says Leonid Troshin, a truck driver. Russia used a series of deadly apartment bombings, blamed on Chechens, and incursions by Chechen fighters into neighboring Dagestan to justify the current war. "The West needs us to fight, but they want the luxury of insulting us at the same time. They should be helping, but they just carp about human rights," Mr. Troshin says.

Talking at cross purposes

More than a tough foreign-policy wrangle, Chechnya is rapidly deepening the historic divide between Russia and the West. "The problem is, we are talking at cross-purposes," says Vasily Lipitsky, deputy director of the Moscow-based Fund For Realism in Politics. "The Europeans want to point out that we signed certain human rights obligations, and that we should be making efforts to obey them or at least to fully and publicly account for our actions.

"We, on the other hand, are very frustrated that the Europeans refuse to understand our position. We are facing the threat of national breakup and a wave of terrorism. We want support. In Russian culture, criticism is seen as siding with the enemy," Mr. Lipitsky says.

Of a dozen shoppers questioned in a Moscow market, only one sounded even slightly conciliatory.

"Even if it is necessary to fight in Chechnya, I'm sure we could be more careful not to harm innocent people," says Nina Razovskaya, a teenage student. "The Europeans are right about that. Maybe if we tried harder, they'd be nicer to us."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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