(CNSNews.com) - Moscow's war against the Chechen rebels is not as popular or heroic as the Kremlin would have the world believe, and economic indicators continue to show the standard of living in Russia is deteriorating, leading experts on Russia told CNSNews.com.
These assertions undermine statements made by Dimitri Yakushin, a senior aide to acting President Vladimir Putin and a former press secretary to President Boris Yeltsin, who is currently visiting Washington on behalf of the new Kremlin leadership.
Yakushin's presence in Washington is much larger than selling the Chechen war, said David Johnson, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, in an interview with CNSNews.com. "He's here to overtly carry the message to Washington insiders who may still be wary of Putin's years in the KGB. They're trying to be reassuring that this is really Yeltsin without the Yeltsin bad stuff."
There are certainly cracks in the popularity of the war, "if not crevices," said Janine Wedel, associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She added, "It's going to be a very protracted war ... Many more Russians are probably being killed than is being reported."
Additional problems with the Russian economy can only make the situation worse. Economic figures coming out of Russia are "quite depressing," Wedel said in an interview with CNSNews.com.
"Things got progressively worse during 1999," said Wedel, author of Collision and Collusion, The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, an account of Western attempts to reform aid to Russia.
The Russian population has suffered increasingly since the ruble devaluation of August 1998, Wedel said, citing reports published by the Organization of Economic Development (OECD) in late 1999, and by the Moscow Times, quoting the Russian Statistics Agency Department for Tracking Income.
An estimated 38 percent of the population was living in poverty at the close of the first quarter of 1999, compared with 28 percent at the same point in 1998. Real incomes in June 1999 were only at 77 percent of the June 1998 level, according to the OECD.
During Yeltsin's presidency in 1999, Russian citizens became poorer, with the average level of Russians' real cash income, adjusted for inflation, decreasing 15 percent that year. An estimated 70 percent of Russians now live below or just above the poverty line, Wedel said.
"I suspect [Yakushin] is here to tell the West what it wants to hear, which is that things aren't so bad and that Putin is a reformer, which is a category the West, and particularly Washington, seems to love to hear," Wedel said.
While Yakushin admitted the greatest challenge facing the new leadership in Moscow was to effect rigorous economic reforms, he told reporters in Washington Tuesday that a lot of economic indicators were not as bad as had been predicted.
Yakushin also defended Moscow's war against Chechen rebels, who he said were financing their efforts for independence through narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, counterfeit money and slave trading. Yakushin did not dispute reports of low morale among Russian troops in the Caucasus, but said the Putin leadership enjoyed broad support in Russia in its efforts to crush the Chechen leadership.
This assertion also was challenged by Western analysts. The government-controlled television has manipulated people's perceptions of the war, Johnson said. "I have a suspicion that the war is not as popular as we are led to believe," he said.
The notion that the population is solidly behind the war helps Putin and his supporters, because it makes their pursuit of the war palatable to the West, which reasons that although the Russians are mistaken, at least they're united in their resolve, Johnson said.
"But the war has taken a disastrous turn from the public relations point of view. Maybe Putin is so popular that he can ride this out, but we are not having a triumphal march to the March 26 election, and this has to be very worrying to them," Johnson said.
Nearly four months into their military campaign, Russian troops now control most low-lying territory in Chechnya, but face fierce rebel resistance in the capital Grozny and in the southern mountains, the fighters' traditional stronghold.
Moscow is under growing Western pressure to halt its campaign and to start peace talks. Russia says it is committed to a political resolution of the crisis.
"This is a war that they calculatedly entered into in order to rescue the Yeltsin regime from its disastrous end, which everyone had been predicting," Johnson said.
The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in Moscow disputed official figures that 600 federal troops were killed since the war began. "The committee said the figure is probably five times higher," Wedel said.