Trust is key to Chechen peace

June 28, 1996

Boris Yeltsin may have boosted his chances of success in the second round of Russia's presidential elections next month by securing a Chechen peace deal, but the road to a lasting solution to the causes of the bloody civil war will be long and hard, academic experts warn.

Sociologists, ethnologists and leading public opinion pollsters told Emil Pain, President Yeltsin's adviser on nationalism, that the key to peace is understanding the psychology of the Chechen people.

The experts gathered for the round-table discussion on the Chechen crisis at the Moscow-based Federation for Peace and Reconciliation, the successor organisation to the former Soviet Peace Committee.

Leokadia Drobizheva, head of the department of sociology and inter-ethnic relations at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, said that President Yeltsin had finally made the right move when he invited the Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev to Moscow in late May. The ceasefire agreement signed then may have faltered, but it laid the groundwork for the deal signed by Russian and Chechen negotiators for an end to hostilities and withdrawal of Russian troops by the end of August.

"President Yeltsin had not met in person with any of the Chechen leaders during the entire 17 months of the war. For the Chechens such meetings and establishing trust is absolutely essential - this is integral to their psychology.

"Yeltsin's readiness to compromise allowed the Chechens to reciprocate, because finally they feel as if their point of view is being heard and they are being understood and respected as a nation."

Professor Drobizheva said Yeltsin and his advisers should study the experience of other Muslim states within the Russian Federation, such as the autonomous republic of Tatarstan which had independent domestic policies, but shared a common foreign and defence policy with Russia.

"This sort of compromise could be acceptable to the psychology of the Chechens: their mentality is such that if they really trust their leader, as the Tatars do, they will do whatever he says," she said.

If the June agreement held, the academics said, Yeltsin could reap immediate electoral benefit in the second round of the presidential polls.

Lev Gudkav, of the Russian Public Opinion Centre, a sociological research foundation, said the importance attached to the Chechen war by the Russian public varied with the economic situation of the country. The media and political leadership had sometimes made the mistake of vesting too much significance in the crisis when most people were more concerned with bread and butter economics. But if the president wanted to pull the country back from the edge of the Chechen precipice he should understand that polls had consistently shown big majorities in favour of pulling troops out and compromising with native leaders.

"The president's policy, which may be characterised as one step forward and two steps back, has caused a tremendous amount of damage to his office and authority," he said.

A lasting peace would only be achieved if the fiercely proud and nationalistic people of the small nation could be offered a large measure of independence, delegates to the round-table agreed.

Valeri Egorov, executive secretary of the Russian Political Science Association, said: "It's important to understand that any social process goes through distinct stages of crisis, stagnation and routine. In such a complicated process as resolving the differences between Russian and Chechenia this needs to be borne in mind.

"Some measure of compromise must be found between the Russian view that Chechenia is officially part of the Russian Federation and the Chechen wish for independence."

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