Quietly, tide of opinion turns on Chechen war

Every Thursday evening Lena Batenkova and a handful of other intrepid souls picket in Moscow's Pushkin Square, within sight of the Kremlin, to protest the war in Chechnya.

She's been arrested twice and often taunted for her alleged lack of patriotism, but Ms. Batenkova feels she is doing what she must to keep alive a spark of public debate over the war in Chechnya. "We are ready to picket as long as it takes, until the Chechen war is resolved peacefully," she says. "We need to talk to everyone about it."

It could appear to anyone following Russia's major media - highly influenced by the Kremlin - that Batenkova's group represents a tiny, quixotic minority. Yet independent pollster Yury Levada says that 60 percent of Russians agree with her group's central demand - that the Kremlin sit down and talk with the Chechen rebels - and that increasing numbers doubt the possibility of a military solution to the five-year-old war.

Although substantive discussion of Russia's most painful policy issue has been forced to the margins in recent years, many experts say it is not at all certain the majority prefers it that way.

"Where public debate is still possible, it goes on in a lively fashion," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, an independent media watchdog group. "The problem is that the subject of Chechnya has been driven out of most public spaces. The whole climate in this country is undergoing a deep recession."

More than 100,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since the first Chechen war began a decade ago. The second conflict has seen separatist insurgents turn to ruthless terrorism, such as September's bloody school siege in Beslan, while human rights groups charge that Russian forces and their local Chechen allies employ death squads and political prisons.

Russian mainstream media depict Chechnya as "returning to normal," and the ongoing military campaign as having no alternative. The deadly terrorist strikes here are portrayed as the work of "international terrorists" with no direct connection to the conflict in Chechnya - a view expressed by President Vladimir Putin.

"The subject of Chechnya is considered to be too sensitive for our president, and therefore the media largely refrain from any critical discussion of it," says Yury Goland, an expert with the independent Institute of International Economic and Political Studies. "It's largely a matter of self-censorship."

Mr. Goland argues that, while Kremlin control of the media is real, the overriding problem is that Russian society has ignored the war in Chechnya. "I think there is a public consensus that we cannot allow any negotiations about Chechnya's secession, for fear it would create a domino effect and spread to the rest of Russia. So people wearily agree that the use of force is the only way, and they don't want to hear anything further about it."

But the protest movement is growing and might eventually sway opinion. At Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum and Community Center over the past month, a steady stream of visitors passed through an exhibit of photos, bloodied clothes, and other materials devoted to the victims of a decade of "war and terrorism" in Chechnya.

"We wanted to make people think about the question: What are we fighting for?" says Yury Samodourov, the museum's director. "If a war has no clear and discernable purpose, then it's impossible to ever win it. We've had groups of cadets, military people, politicians, and many others come through here. I hope it is having an impact."

Last week one of Russia's bigger grassroots groups, the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, transformed itself into a political party to more effectively project concerns about military conscription and the Chechnya war to the public arena. "There needs to be a flow of accurate information [about the war in Chechnya]. Questions need to be put to the authorities through the proper channels, and in the correct language. Since we no longer have anyone to do this for us, we've decided to do it ourselves," says Valentina Melnikova, chairperson of the new United Peoples' Party of Soldiers' Mothers.

Drawing sharp criticism from the Kremlin, members of the group plan to meet next week in Brussels with Akhmed Zakayev, a representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. The mothers' group wants to talk about ways to end the war in Chechnya, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the group was simply "justifying those who encourage and carry out terrorist attacks," the Associated Press reported yesterday.

A leader of Yabloko, one of the liberal parties excluded from the State Duma after last December's voting, says he sympathizes with Ms. Melnikova's frustrations over the war. "Our political field has narrowed, there is censorship in the mass media, and the war in Chechnya is a prohibited subject," says Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko's deputy chairman.

But last month 2,000 people attended a protest rally on the fifth anniversary of the Chechnya war - a minuscule turnout for a city of 10 million, but a sign, organizers say, the public is beginning to stir.

"There is no developed civil society in Russia, and most people are not ready to openly protest," says Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Moscow Human Rights Movement, a coalition of community groups. "But opinion surveys show the war in Chechnya does worry the population, and they do not believe a military solution there is possible. Society is sending signals to the authorities, even if they prefer, so far, not to notice."

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