Vienna, August 22 – Compared to seven years ago, fewer Russians now say they believe Moscow should have introduced troops into Chechnya in 1999 while a plurality both then and now have told pollsters that they believe it would have been “sufficient” to close the border between Chechnya and the Russian Federation.
Yesterday, the Levada Center released the results of a July 13-16 poll of 1600 Russians concerning whom they hold responsible for the start of the second Chechen war in 1999, why the Chechen incursion into Daghestan had been possible in the first place, and whether Moscow should have dispatched troops to that breakaway republic.
The percentages blaming Chechens, on the one hand, and Moscow leaders, on the other, show relatively little change over the last eight years, with two remarkable exceptions: Far fewer Russians now blame Boris Yeltsin than did in 1999, 25 percent compared to 36 percent, and only a tiny fraction blame his successor Vladimir Putin.
In 1999, an earlier Levada poll found that two percent of Russians held Putin responsible for the launch of the second post-Soviet Chechen war, a figure that rose to three percent in 2001, but now stands again at two percent – or only about one Russian in 50 (http://www.levada.ru/press/2007082105.html).
Given Putin’s exploitation of the start of the war to generate support for his own political rise, those figures are surprising -- and yet another indication that Russians overwhelmingly are unprepared to blame their president even for unpopular policies with which he is closely associated.
The latest poll also found that Russians continue to blame in almost equal numbers the incompetence of Russian security services and their interest in re-igniting a conflict in the Caucasus, Moscow’s failure to deal with the Chechens earlier, and economic interests and corruption for the Chechens’ ability to invade Daghestan.
But the most interesting answers came in response to a third question: “Should Russian forces have been introduced into Chechnya in the Fall of 1999 – or do you agree with those who believe that then it would have been sufficient to put forces on the border of Chechnya, to close [that] border, and wait until health forces in Chechnya resolved the situation on their own?”
In 2000, 44 percent said that Moscow needed to introduce forces, the same percentage of that of those who backed closing the frontier. Now, in the latest poll, the share backing the introduction of forces has fallen to 26 percent, while the percentage supporting closing the border has risen slightly to 46 percent.
On the one hand, this shift in Russian attitudes may reflect little more than the Kremlin’s oft-repeated claims that the Chechen leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov is taking care of things now, an argument that may have led many Russians to conclude that a similar outcome with fewer losses might have been possible earlier.
But on the other, it certainly suggests that an increasing number of Russians are weary of this conflict. And consequently, neither the Putin regime nor its successor are likely to be able to count on much enthusiasm for a future renewal of the conflict, a political reality both Kadyrov and pro-independence groups are likely to exploit.
UPDATE FOR JULY 23: The Levada Center has published two more data sets from this poll on Russian attitudes about Chechnya (http://www.levada.ru/press/2007082204.html and http://www.levada.ru/press/2007082202.html). Among other findings worthy of note are the following: First, while the percentage of Russians who said that the war in Chechnya was continuing fell from 74 percent in 2003 to 41 percent in 2007, hat latter figure is still greater than the 38 percent who say that Chechnya is now living in peace. Second, over the same period, the percentage of Russians who favor continuing military operations fell from 26 to 17 while the share favoring the beginning of peace talks declined from 60 percent to 52 percent. Third, as in earlier surveys, the percentage of Russians who view the north Caucasus as tense continues to be above 60. Fourth, roughly half of all Russians continue to say that they do not trust media coverage of the conflict. And fifth, roughly half expect the current situation in Chechnya and the north Caucasus to continue as it is “without change.”