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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Chechnya's News Is in Its Numbers




What does it take to galvanize a nation? Official statistics coming out of the Defense and Interior ministries regarding Russian casualties in the ongoing Chechen conflict are beginning to look alarming, and Russia is not yet cynical enough to let the death of its young conscripts pass unnoticed. Still, public opinion on the conflict is surprisingly sanguine. The latest polls put approval ratings for the campaign at 62 percent.


Polls, of course, can be easily manipulated or misconstrued. So, for that matter, can the media, policy and general assumptions of cause and effect. Analysts suggest that this time around, Russians have a real, ground-level sensation of fear that past and distant conflicts failed to provide. The quick succession of apartment block bombings, which left nearly 300 dead in Moscow, Bunaiksk and Volgodonsk, were apparently potent enough gestures to keep public support humming for some time.


The Moscow bombings, which claimed the greatest number of lives and quickly rippled out into an ugly local campaign of document checks, neighborhood snitches and vicious discrimination against Caucasian minorities, were neatly packaged for public consumption within weeks. Sites were plowed over, survivors were relocated to new apartments, and a tidy theory of Chechen conspiracy was put forth for instant acceptance.


The conflict's billing as an "anti-terrorist operation" was an easy sell after that. There has been virtually no objection movement in the public sector, and Russian media vehicles - at least some of which spread their wings during the first Chechen campaign - have returned to a nest of relative docility.


The most acid news content has concentrated on grotesque footage of kidnappers and enslaved Russian soldiers - stories that are part of, but not central to, the conflict at hand. The refugee crisis has been covered, but can hardly be expected to evoke the sympathies of traditionally racist Russia, especially when Sadako Ogata, the UN high commissioner for refugees, is escorted to a suspiciously empty border crossing-point and is quoted the next day - by the Russian Interfax news agency in a report short on context - as saying the situation "can by no means be described as a humanitarian catastrophe."


The press has been so busy skirting the issue, in fact, that the one story that is likely to interest the Russian public - the casualty figures coming out of the Russian Information Center, which are all the more astounding for being issued by the body least interested to exaggeration or alarmism - is unlikely to cause a stir. Russian soldiers are dying at an Afghanistan-level rate of 132 men a month. And this is just the official story. When does the watershed begin?