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Moscow Times
January 10, 2003
Poll Shows Support for Peace Talks
By Nabi Abdullaev
Staff Writer

More than half of Russians favor peace negotiations with Chechen separatists over military action - and many of those opting for peace are pro-Communist retirees and nationalist young men, according to a leading pollster.

The findings suggest that public opposition to the war in Chechnya, which is now in its fourth year, has returned to highs seen for much of 2001-02. Support for the war swelled for about a month after the Moscow theater siege last fall.

Although public opinion has rarely swayed government policy, the Kremlin will have to show more sensitivity to public expectations over Chechnya in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections, analysts predicted.

In a national poll of 1,600 Russians in late December, 56 percent said they wanted peace talks with the rebels, while 36 percent said the war should continue, the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research, or VTsIOM, said Thursday. The margin error for the poll, which was conducted in 83 cities, was about 3 percent.

The doves had consistently outnumbered the hawks in public opinion since January 2001 and neared 60 percent before Chechen rebels seized the theater in late October, said VTsIOM official Leonid Sedov. In November, support for peace talks fell to 45 percent, while 49 percent called for war.

Sedov said the December poll found that supporters of the Communist Party and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia are major proponents for peace in Chechnya. He said the showing might reflect the fact that the Communist electorate is dominated by retirees who remember the ordeals of World War II. As for the LDPR, he said that many of its backers are young men with little education from poor neighborhoods who don't want to land in Chechnya after being drafted into the military.

Sedov said the pro-war respondents mainly come from liberal parties and the centrists behind President Vladimir Putin, whose tough-talking rhetoric on Chechnya helped him climb to the presidency in 2000.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that while the Kremlin has paid little heed to public sentiment over Chechnya, it has certainly not written it off.

"The Kremlin's repeated declarations about there not being any negotiating partners among the Chechen rebels and its claims about the lack of legitimacy of the best possible negotiator, [rebel leader Aslan] Maskhadov, show that Moscow is following public opinion and attempting to explain to Russians its reluctance or inability to hold talks," he said.

Putin's recent decision to throw his support behind a Chechen constitutional referendum followed by elections is another step toward satisfying public opinion, said Boris Makarenko, an expert with the Center of Political Technologies, a think tank.

Another sign that the Kremlin is listening to public opinion is the appointment of a new Chechen prime minister and new military commander to the North Caucasus, Petrov said.

"Officials who had well-developed relations with the locals and obligations to them were swapped for outsiders," he said. "If you don't want to change the situation quickly and radically, there would be no logic to such a reshuffle."

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