First signs of unease over plight of refugees

MOSCOW Initial jingoism gives way to creeping doubts about the human cost of the conflict, but Putin continues to ride wave of popularity

AS EXHAUSTED and terrified refugees pour out of Chechnya, the attitude of the Russian media, hitherto wholly supportive of the military campaign, has begun to change.

Viktor Baranets, an army colonel turned journalist, says: "At the beginning there was a lot of 'hurrah-hurrah' patriotism but now the mass media has started to get more sober. They are asking if it is necessary to bomb everybody in Chechnya."

The changes are small but significant. The main television channels showed an elderly Chechen woman who died in the crush at Kavkaz checkpoint earlier in the week. "It reminded me of what the Germans did to us in the last war," said Valentine Gefter, executive director of the Institute of Human Rights.

In the past couple of days part of the press and television have begun to focus as much on the 200,000 Chechen refugees as the advances of the army. Col Baranets says others, such as Rossiskaya Gazeta and ORT television, "haven't changed their approach to the war. They keep saying "press on, don't stop halfway".

It is very different from the last Chechen war, in 1994-96. Then the media was more openly critical of the entire war effort. This time, press and television have been overwhelmingly supportive, reflecting the views of the "oligarchs" who own them, but it is also a measure of popular Russian backing for the war.

"Who can be against the war after the Chechen bombs in Moscow killed so many people?" said a woman, referring to the blowing up of working- class apartment blocks. "Anybody who came out against the war would be killed."

The politically sophisticated have no doubt the real impetus behind the war is the battle in Moscow to succeed President Boris Yeltsin. Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, has risen from nonentity to a contender for the presidency because he ordered the Chechnya invasion. Ksenefon Ippolitov, a retired KGB general, said: "The ... authorities are doing all this with one purpose in mind - to sway the electorate."

Even where the media is critical of the conduct of the war it is careful to avoid being too damning. This week NTV channel showed a Chechen hospital with child amputees, victims of Russian bombs or shells. It also showed the village of Achkoi Martain with bodies in the streets after a Russian air strike. But another NTV correspondent with the Russian army said a strike on a Red Cross convoy was fully justified.

Will the media's attitude change if the war goes on for a long time and Russian casualties mount? Probably, particularly if a paper or television channel is owned by an "oligarch" hostile to Mr Putin. But for the moment they are reluctant to run against the patriotic tide too early.

Government spokesmen are conducting "an information war" modelled on Nato's presentation of the campaign against Serbia. Chechen guerrillas are referred to as "bandits" or "terrorists" and are said to be receiving reinforcements from the Afghan Taliban, though no proof is produced.

Civilian casualties in villages and on roads are denied. Alternatively, the "terrorists" are hiding in refugee convoys. To get away with this, spokesmen require the Russian media not to mention stories from foreign news agency reporters at the scene, such as the missile attack on Grozny market.

For the moment the Russian army is still advancing. It may not be wholly truthful about its casualties but they are unlikely to be high. The problem with this approach,as the US found in Vietnam, is that disillusionment and shock are likely to be greater if Mr Putin fails to win a decisive victory.

Anatol Lieven

Review, page 5

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