Ordinary Russians appear to be tiring quickly of the debilitating war in Chechnya.
In a political red flag for President Vladimir Putin, a new poll released earlier this month found sharply declining popular support for the Chechnya campaign — the war that sealed Mr. Putin’s can-do reputation and led to the once-obscure KGB agent’s stunning election in March 2000.
ROMIR, a Moscow-based polling and public relations firm, found in a new survey that just 30.7 percent of Russians back Mr. Putin’s aggressive war to crush Islamic insurgents in the breakaway republic. With casualties mounting on both sides, but no end in sight to the conflict, the support has fallen significantly since March of this year, according to the pollsters.
In an accompanying analysis, the polling firm attributes the decline to “the protracted character of the war, the lack of clear progress, high [casualty rates] among servicemen, as well as the [war-weariness] of the general public.”
The declining public support could have significant implications not only for Mr. Putin’s political future, but also for Russia’s relations both with the West and with the Central Asian states to its south. Many of them have expressed fears of the same Islamic fundamentalism that the Kremlin claims to be battling in Chechnya.
While less than a third of Russians polled by ROMIR last month backed Mr. Putin’s approach to Chechnya, 40.9 percent said they thought Russia should either reduce its forces in Chechnya, seek an internationally mediated solution, or simply pull out altogether.
The Russian president’s own rise to power has been intimately tied to the Chechen conflict, Moscow’s second attempt in less than a decade to crush what it calls “terrorists and bandits” in the Caucasian republic.
Pegged as just the latest in a forgettable line of prime ministers when he was picked by former President Boris Yeltsin in mid-1999, Mr. Putin’s tough talk and aggressive prosecution of the early campaign in Chechnya won him a reputation as an effective leader in the Kremlin.
He was already the country’s most popular politician when the ailing Mr. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned Dec. 31, 1999, and he won the presidency with an outright majority in elections held three months later. In that campaign, Mr. Putin staged a well-covered photo opportunity in which he piloted a fighter jet to Chechnya to rally the troops.
Mr. Putin’s Kremlin has also waged a running battle with the Media-Most broadcast empire of Vladimir Gusinsky, employing the tax police and the partially state-owned gas monopoly to break Mr. Gusinsky’s hold on the independent NTV television network. NTV’s main offense: aggressive reporting of Russia’s failures in Chechnya.
The sagging poll numbers matter because Mr. Putin — unlike Mr. Yeltsin — appears consumed by his personal popularity ratings, according to Yuri Levada, director of National Public Opinion Research Center, known by its Russian acronym VTSIOM.
Mr. Putin so values his status as a “public favorite” that he is unwilling to take many actions that might cost him public support, according to Mr. Levada.
While the United States and other Western governments have repeatedly condemned Moscow’s latest Chechnya campaign and called for a political solution, Mr. Putin has faced less and less overt criticism in recent months. The topic barely came up in last week’s Group of Eight summit meeting in Genoa, Italy, or in a bilateral meeting with President Bush.
The lack of any discussion of the conflict brought a complaint from Aslan Maskhadov, the embattled president of the Chechen Republic and leader of the rebel forces.
In a July 19 e-mail message to the leaders attending the Genoa summit, Mr. Maskhadov asked why the international community has ignored the “blood bath” in Chechnya, accusing Western leaders of being unwilling to risk damaging an “uncertain relationship with a fragile and volatile Russia.”
While not seen as threatening his presidency, the low-grade, grinding horrors of the Chechen conflict remain a source of tension and unease for the Russian leader.
The Council of Europe this month again condemned the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya, and a testy Mr. Putin sparred with Western reporters at a pre-G8 news conference over his handling of the war.
In the press conference, Mr. Putin made clear he sees a direct link between the Islamic rebel groups he is battling in Chechnya and the larger problem of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia.
A major impulse behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a new alliance of Russia, China, and four Central Asian states — has been to check the rising political and military clout of Islamic fundamentalist forces in the region.
Mr. Putin told reporters he had no intention of changing his Chechnya policy, saying there had been a “metastasis” of Islamic radicalism on Russia’s southern flank.
It would be an “unforgivable mistake” to allow Chechnya to become “a beachhead for attacks on the Russian Federation,” Mr. Putin said.
Continuing the pattern of tough talk, Mr. Putin this month announced he opposed the use of the death penalty — except for Chechens.
“The Chechens should not rejoice as they are not going to be taken alive,” he said.