Russian Propaganda Wears Thin

Why peoples across the Caucasus have been slow in voicing their support for their embattled ethnic kin in Chechnya

Russian Propaganda Wears Thin

Why peoples across the Caucasus have been slow in voicing their support for their embattled ethnic kin in Chechnya

Friday, 29 September, 2000

When the Russian army invaded Chechnya in September last year, an unknown hand daubed the words "The Chechens are heroes, the Kabardinians are with you" on a fence outside Nalchik's city gates. Earlier this month, a new slogan appeared on the fence - "The Chechens are heroes, the Kabardinians are cowards", apparently written by the same hand. The first legend remains, the second has been hastily scrubbed off.

The graffiti offers a revealing insight into shifting local attitudes towards the war in Chechnya. Apparently, Russian propaganda is beginning to wear thin and ethnic bonds which have grown up through the centuries are starting to trouble consciences across the North Caucasus.

It puts one in mind of the emotionally charged months before the first Chechen campaign when Musa Shanibov, head of the Confederation of Caucasian Peoples, threatened a mobilisation of pro-Chechen forces across the North Caucasus.

The politicians in Moscow hesitated - but not for long. And when the Russian tanks thundered across the Chechen border, Dagestanis, Cherkess and Kabardinians hurried to the aid of their embattled cousins. But, for the Chechens at least, they were disappointingly few in number.

It was, perhaps, a combination of circumstances. Many North Caucasian peoples had suffered losses in the Abkhazian war - the Cherkess alone lost more than 50 volunteers in the fighting. Furthermore, it seemed impossible that the Chechens could hold out against the vast Russian army and the elders discouraged the younger generation from answering Shanibov's call.

Most importantly, all the North Caucasian leaders - with the exception of Ruslan Aushev, in Ingushetia - publicly supported the invasion of "mutinous and uncontrollable" Chechnya "which had undermined the unity of the Russian Federation".

By the beginning of the second Chechen campaign, the Russian propaganda machine had convinced the majority of the local population that Chechnya was the hub of the nation's criminal underground - a reputation which the Chechens themselves had done little to overturn.

Shortly before the war, Yuri Yerkenov, the head of a regional administration in Kabardino-Balkaria, was kidnapped in a sensational armed raid which claimed the life of an old school-friend. Local people were so shocked by the incident that many contributed their meagre savings and pensions to meet the ransom demand. Yerkenov was returned a few months later after his abductors were paid an undisclosed sum.

Although Yerkenov's kidnappers were never found, it was generally accepted that Chechens were responsible for the crime. And this set a trend for the months leading up to the Russian invasion - murders and kidnappings across the North Caucasus were all blamed on Chechen gangs.

Today, the huge cost of the Chechen campaign is turning popular opinion against the Kremlin. People in neighbouring republics have been appalled by the vast sums of money being poured into the military machine while living standards across the region have never been so low.

To add insult to injury, men whom many regard as war criminals have been showered with military titles and honours while "contract soldiers" in Chechnya earn 1,000 roubles a day - more than most local people receive in a month.

This summer, a congress held by the International Cherkess Association in Nalchik reflected this change of heart. One delegate summarised the opinion of a growing majority when he said, "Everyone knows how painful it can be to pull out a fingernail. It is just as painful to watch the destruction of the Chechen people who have lived together with us for centuries and share brotherly ties.

"I ask you all to do everything possible - and maybe impossible - to put an end to this accursed war."

Cherkes Bek is a political commentator in Cherkessk

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