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Russians Blame Yeltsin For Chechnya Debacle

AS images of Russian soldiers killed by rebel fighters in Chechnya flash across television screens in Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin is losing public support for his military campaign in the breakaway republic.

President Yeltsin's decision to send troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 was a calculated risk. He gambled that military intervention would bring a rapid solution to the conflict.

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[Yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin ordered a halt to bombing the capital, Grozny, a government press service said. A ban a week ago was ordered, but air raids continued.]

But more than three weeks and several humiliating defeats later - particularly Russia's failed New Year's Eve attempt to capture the Chechen capital - Yeltsin's use of force to slam Chechnya back into Russia is only serving to alienate him from his fellow citizens.

``Our president is essentially wrong. He has no right to sacrifice our lives,'' said university student Mikhail Martynov as he waited for a trolley in central Moscow on Wednesday. ``Now he has only two options: either to shamefully withdraw our troops or to completely level everything in Chechnya. He should apologize and admit his mistakes.''

In a 1,000-person poll conducted after troops entered Chechnya, the Public Opinion Foundation found 63 percent of those surveyed believed that Moscow should immediately withdraw from Chechnya.

Forty percent blamed Yeltsin for the Chechen crisis, while only 2 percent blamed Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev. Forty-two percent supported a cease-fire, and only 34 percent believed stronger measures should be taken against General Dudayev.

``My son is only 13 years old, but my friends' sons are now being drafted into this horrible war,'' says actress Lyudmila Genika, who was about to enter a specialty porcelain shop downtown.

``We should just forget about Chechnya and solve the problem without bloodshed,'' she says. ``But in this country, our opinions never counted for anything.''

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The high number of ethnic Russian and Chechen civilian casualties, many the victims of Russian bombing raids, has perhaps been the single most damaging factor to Yeltsin's military campaign.

His use of unbridled force, which he has consistently defended as the only way to avoid a drawn-out war with Chechnya, is also beginning to raise concern in the United States and Europe, now questioning the way Yeltsin has sought to quell the region's three-year bid for independence.

Although no exact numbers are available, both Russian and Chechen officials estimate that hundreds of people have been killed in the conflict so far, while tens of thousands have been made homeless.

``Of course, this conflict is not worth the lives of Russian soldiers,'' says pensioner Sergei Yegorov. ``But Yeltsin has pushed himself into a corner, and now he has to finish the operation.''

Memories of the Soviet Union's failed military intervention in Afghanistan are still painfully fresh in the minds of many Russians. Some fear the crisis in Chechnya could spill over into nearby, mostly Muslim republics.

``We should have organized a total blockade of Chechnya to make them beg to return to Russia themselves,'' says security guard Alexander Schedrov. ``This would have cost less money and less lives.''

Almost all Russian political parties have criticized the Russian military intervention, except ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats.

Former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar has emerged as Yeltsin's most outspoken critic, although on Wednesday, radical economist Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads a reformist parliamentary faction, called publicly for Yeltsin's resignation.

BUT most Muscovites, still reeling from economic reforms, are too preoccupied with unemployment, crime, and dwindling salaries to demonstrate against Yeltsin, as they did against Soviet rule in the 1980s.

Soldiers' mothers groups in Moscow have protested the Russian military intervention, but only a few dozen people turned up Tuesday at the old KGB building on Lubyanka Square to protest Yeltsin's use of force.

As Russian troops gear up for fresh attacks on Grozny, some Muscovites believe force is the only vehicle that can bring the defiant Chechens - who are reputed in Russia as much for their bravery as for their gold-capped teeth and perceived Mafia-type ways - to their knees.

Many Muscovites do not believe Moscow's official line that the tiny Chechen nation threatens Russia's security. But the Kremlin has made such talk more palatable by loudly declaring that Chechens are at the root of many of Russia's problems.

``The main mistake Yeltsin made is that he didn't act this way three years ago. If he had acted properly then, this wouldn't have happened. But if Russian troops are withdrawn, the whole northern Caucasus will turn into Chechnya,'' says office manager Nelly Vinogradova.

Like many Russians, she says Chechens are responsible for the bulk of criminal activity within Russia. Her comments reflect a long-held Russian animosity toward the Chechen nation, which has been battling Russian rule since czarist times.

``I'm not anti-Chechen. I'm anti-the-Chechen-way-of-behavior,'' Ms. Vinogradova says. ``These people are uncivilized, they are aggressive, very dangerous ... this is the way they should be treated.''

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