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Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie
April 4, 2003
Public opinion on Chechnya and the Moscow theater hostage-taking
Author: Igor Khlebnikov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]


The National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) has released its fourth annual compendium: "Public Opinion 2002". It includes the key results of VTsIOM polls conducted in the course of last year. For a number of reasons (the ongoing war in Chechnya, as well as several major terrorist incidents, primarily the May 9 bombing in Kaspiisk and the October 23-26 hostage-taking at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow) many of the poll questions sought opinions about the state of public security and the performance of law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Security Service (FSB).

For example, in an August 2002 poll (before the theater hostage- taking), 79% of respondents admitted that they feared becoming a victim of terrorism. In the same month, 29% of respondents said it was "very likely" and 51% said it was "fairly likely" that some major terrorist attacks would happen in Russia, similar to the September 11 events in the United States. Only 17% of respondents said this was "fairly unlikely" or "completely unlikely". These figures, together with the results of earlier VTsIOM polls, indicate that fears of becoming a victim of terrorism, and fear of terrorists, have unfortunately become part of public opinion in Russian society.

Only 12% of respondents consider the guerrillas fighting in Chechnya to be "fighters for the independence of their homeland" or "people defending themselves, their land, and their families". The overwhelming majority (77%) describe them as bandits, killers, and abductors. Around 86% of respondents believe that the Chechen separatists have links with international terrorist organizations; three-quarters of respondents (76%) say that a partisan war is underway in Chechnya; and only 13% believe that a peace settlement process has begun.

Overall, 30% of respondents have no doubt that a victory in the counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya is still a long way off; 55% are optimistic enough to say it is achievable. Judging by these polls, the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens believe that a long time will be required to regulate the situation in Chechnya: 42% of respondents say "many years", 13% say "within the next few years", 27% say "Chechnya will remain a source of tension and conflict in Russia for decades", and 9% say that the federal government will have to acknowledge Chechnya's independence from Russia sooner or later.

Around 27% of respondents said the problem of Chechnya should be resolved solely through the use of force; 16% said it should be resolved solely by a process of negotiation; but 33% supported a combination of force and negotiation. At the same time, 18% of respondents said it is impossible to achieve peaceful regulation there, and Chechnya should be allowed to break away from Russia. When asked their opinion of an independent Chechnya, 25% of respondents said they would welcome such a development; 15% were opposed, but would be prepared to accept it; and 26% said that everything possible should be done to prevent it.

A substantial majority (68%) are sure that the next generation of Chechens will be even more hostile towards Russia, seeking revenge on Russians for Chechnya's dead and the violence to which families in Chechnya have been subjected. Only 14% of respondents believe that the next generation of young Chechens will have a better attitude to Russia.

Around 63% of respondents consider that the situation taking shape in Chechnya "will lead to a weakening of society's morals, and the spread of violence". In a December 2002 poll, 42% of respondents said that sending troops into Chechnya in December 1999 had been the right thing to do; 43% said that sealing off the border would have sufficed; and 16% were uncertain.

It is worth noting a rather disturbing figure that indicates rising inter-ethnic tension in Russian society. Over a third of respondents (36%) believe that Chechens themselves are to blame for their misfortunes and "are getting what they deserve"; 32% believe that the suffering of the Chechen people is being exaggerated by Western propaganda with the aim of discrediting and humiliating Russia; while 20% believe that the suffering of the Chechen people is real, and that Russia ought to heed the opinion of the West.

Around 47% of respondents do not think that Chechens should be granted equal rights with all other Russian citizens; 67% believe "it is impossible to have a dialogue of equals" with Chechens, who "only understand the language of force". A substantial number of respondents also admitted they had negative reactions to ethnic Chechens: 30% felt mistrustful and fearful of Chechens, while 36% felt annoyance and dislike. Moreover, 44% of respondents said that relations between members of different ethnic groups had generally changed for the worse in recent years, and 40% said there had been a rise in extremist nationalism.

Around 40% of respondents said that any captured Chechen guerrillas "ought to be executed on the spot, if there is reason to suspect they have been involved in fighting or sabotage". But 17% of respondents said they ought to be treated as prisoners of war, and 37% said they should stand trial according to the due processes of law.

Exactly half of respondents believe the government should take stronger action to wipe out the remaining guerrillas and destroy their bases; 18% say more attention should be paid to restoring Chechnya's economy and establishing peaceful life; and 11% say that consensus should be sought with all authoritative figures in Chechnya, regardless of whether they have taken part in the fighting.

Around 55% of respondents consider that clean-up operations in Chechnya's towns and villages are essential and justified. At the same time, most respondents do not believe media reports about abuses and brutality practised by federal troops against Chechen civilians (28% say this is definitely false, 40% say it is probably false, 7% say it is definitely true, and 15% say it is probably true).

However, 37% of respondents (13% saying "definitely true" and 24% saying "probably true") do agree that civil rights of Chechens were violated during clean-up operations in Chechen villages in 1999-2001. And 34% of respondents hold the following opinion on this issue: all available measures must be taken to prevent unacceptable violations of the rights of Chechen citizens, up to and including court-martials - but clean-up operations are still necessary.

Overall, in summing up the group of poll questions related to the situation in Chechnya, the following points should be noted.

The figures cited here indicate that overall, public opinion still supports the counter-terrorism operation underway in Chechnya; however, if the status quo in the North Caucasus remains in place over a lengthy period, this support will decline - defeatist attitudes will spread, and there could even be some extremist actions by radical pacifists.


The news that hostages had been taken in Moscow aroused feelings of anger among 36% of respondents, and alarm among 34%; 7% of respondents said this act of terrorism made them think about the issue of the war in Chechnya as such.

However, 9% of respondents felt sympathy for the hostage-takers, and even some degree of understanding of their motives for doing such a thing. According to VTsIOM, such figures (under 10%) may be disregarded; but law enforcement agencies cannot fail to take heed of the fact that a certain proportion of the public virtually sympathizes with the bandits, which is only one step away from accepting terrorism as justified.

Around 45% of respondents said the Chechen guerrillas were to blame for the events in Moscow; but 35% held the special services responsible for what happened, primarily the FSB and the Interior Ministry. And 15% said the blame lay "with the Russian government itself, which is continuing military operations in Chechnya".

In a late November poll, 23% of respondents described the operation to free the hostages as successful; 55% called it generally satisfactory; and only 19% said it was unsatisfactory.

The actions of the hostage-takers in Moscow and the subsequent storming of the theater led to a sharp upswing in public support for the counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya. Around 54% of respondents said the response ought to be decisive action, "similar to what America did after September 11"; and the proportion of supporters of using force in Chechnya rose from 34% to 46%. The proportion of those supporting negotiations fell to 45%.

According to poll respondents, the main reasons for the high number of casualties during the operation to free the hostages were as follows:

- poorly-organized evacuation and first aid for the hostages (32%)

- excessive use of gas (31%)

- provocation by the terrorists (19%)

- inadequate preparations for storming the theater (14%

In a November 2002 poll, 78% of respondents had no doubt that the storming of the theater was a necessary measure; only 12% said concessions should have been made to the terrorists in order to save the hostages. While 49% of respondents considered the use of gas justified, 36% said the special services ought to have found a safer method of freeing the hostages.

(Translated by Arina Yevtikhova)

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