MOSCOW, May 8 (JTA) Nadezhda Korabelnik is clear about what Russia should do in Chechnya: Get out.
“This war is very convenient for the government to ‘write off’ many problems, including poverty and unemployment,” says the Jewish researcher at the State Oriental Museum in Moscow.
Expressing concern that the war stirs up interethnic hatred, Korabelnik adds: “People are dying; Russia can’t handle the problem. Let Chechnya be an independent state under international supervision.”
Korabelnik is one of many Russians who are increasingly questioning the wisdom of Russia’s military actions against its breakaway southern province.
The growing concern over the war in Chechnya is harming Vladimir Putin’s standing at the polls even as the Russian president, who has been serving in an acting capacity since the beginning of the year, was officially sworn in Sunday in Russia’s first peaceful, democratic transition in its 1,100-year history.
Putin’s popularity soared to unheard-of heights of 60 to 70 percent last fall, due to his tough handling of the situation in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus, where rebels are seeking to establish an independent Islamic regime.
But as it has become clear that the Muslim rebels would not put down their arms without a more-protracted struggle, Putin’s popularity has sagged to less than 51 percent.
The questioning of Russia’s policy of pounding the Chechens into submission is even more pronounced among the nation’s roughly 600,000 Jews.
Jews who support the war fall into two camps.
Some, including those in the military and many who have had direct contact with the Chechen fighters, support the war out of ethnic fear.
“These people will never live in peace, especially with the Jews. They hate us, they have been humiliating us most,” says Semyon Dadashev, a Mountain Jew from Grozny, the Chechen capital, who fled to Moscow before the war began last fall.
“Their mixture of imported Muslim fundamentalism with a savage primitive clan culture is terrifying.”
Others see a link between Russia’s actions against the Muslim guerillas and Israel’s fight against Arab terrorists.
“Russia has proven that it is possible and necessary to fight terrorism using military methods,” says Avigdor Eskin, a Russian-born Israeli now living in Moscow.
“Chechnya today is a center of the international terrorism, of fundamentalist and fascist groupings. Russia’s handling of the situation is a good example for Israel.”
Former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin even made this link when he suggested building a system of Russian settlements deep into Chechnya.
“Like the Israelis did with their kibbutzes,” he told JTA.
Both of these groups point to the atrocities committed by Chechen gangs as support for their views.
Among those opposed to the war are Western-oriented Jewish intellectuals in Moscow and St. Petersburg people like the researcher Korabelnik.
These pacifists, who include many who supported liberal Grigory Yavlinsky in the March presidential election, demand an end to the military action, Russia’s withdrawal of its troops and Chechen self-determination.
This stance was internationally publicized in the beginning of March, when Vladimir Goussinsky, the head of the umbrella Russian Jewish Congress, was quoted in an interview in Le Monde as saying that “the Chechens should be given opportunity to detach themselves. Russia shouldn’t keep any people by force.”
Goussinsky also said the situation in Chechnya could qualify as genocide.
Some observers believe that the media mogul’s anti-war and, consequently, anti-Putin stance has been one of the main reasons behind the latest state financial pressure on Goussinsky’s media empire and the latest attacks on him on state-controlled television channels.
But most Jews fall somewhere in between the two camps.
They don’t want the war, but at the same time don’t understand how the problems of terrorism, kidnappings, militant fundamentalism and, above all, complete lawlessness in Chechnya can be solved without military action.
As Anna Smolina, a Jewish leader in the city of Kazan, puts it, “I am against any war because people die in wars.”
But, she adds, “it is the business of the politicians to finish the action in Chechnya so that no terrorists will be left.”
Retired Russian Maj. Vyacheslav Izmailov, a Jew from the Caucasus region, agrees the army shouldn’t have entered Chechnya. He predicts that the guerrillas will escalate their war against the Russian army during the summer, and with that escalation will come more Chechen kidnappings, including of Jews, who he says remain a profitable prey for bandits.
He says he is currently on the case of the son of an Israeli businessman kidnapped by the Chechens.
“The situation is very complicated,” he says, adding that “it has become quite hard to establish working contacts with the kidnappers, and many hostages are going to perish because of that.”