| MOSCOW - As President Vladimir Putin lit a candle in memory
of Beslan's dead
in a chapel on Vorobyovy Gory, he never looked more alone.
Standing in a corner of the almost empty church, his fists tightly clenched
by his sides, Putin kept his gaze fixed solemnly down at the end of the
traumatic week of his presidency.
The Tuesday night visit was not Putin's first to the chapel. More than
years ago, as Boris Yeltsin's newly anointed heir apparent, he attended
New Year's service there. Back then,
he was set to swing into the presidency on the back of the war he had
launched in Chechnya on his infamous vow to "waste" Chechen
rebels "in the
His vow appears to have gone more than sour. Now he is facing the biggest
challenge of his presidency.
The scale of terrorist attacks over the past three weeks that have killed
more than 400 people indicates that Putin's nation is facing "a new
organized political military force," said
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin political consultant.
What's more, questions are mounting about whether Putin's policies -
not only in Chechnya but also the power consolidation drive to stamp out
opposition and public debate - are exacerbating the terrorist threat.
Opposition politicians such as Grigory
Yavlinsky and Irina Khakamada said in interviews this week that this
was an increasingly dangerous trend.
Some politicians and analysts are wondering about Putin's ability to
the nation's security. "The president was awarded a contract to restore
order in Russia and ensure that
Russia's people are safe. Today we see that this contract has been broken,"
Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining independent State Duma deputies,
wrote in Nezavisimaya
Gazeta this week.
"If the state cannot ensure the security of the country - which
is its main
task - then it cannot lay claim to its other powers, such as collecting
taxes," Markov said. "This is a colossal
But a bruised Putin looks to be keeping above the fray even as a storm
protest broke out this week in the Moscow press about the authorities'
bungled handling of the Beslan attack
and their initial lies over the number of hostages.
Among the more than 130,000 people who attended an officially organized
rally against terrorism in Moscow on Tuesday were many who stood beside
the president. Some carried posters reading "Putin, We're With You," and others denounced
protesters against the war in Chechnya as "traitors."
The first public opinion poll conducted since the hostage crisis indicates
that few hold the president responsible, blaming corrupt law enforcers
instead. Fifty-four percent said the
security and police services were corrupt, and 23 percent said they did
know how to do their job properly, Reuters reported.
But it looks like the Kremlin is not taking any chances. Calls by the
Rodina faction for the dissolution of parliament over the crisis never
it onto state television news.
Neither did a statement by the Communist Party that lashed out at the
authorities as being "incapable" of dealing with the national
it said, had given birth to the terrorist
threat. Their cries were muted and, without coverage, carried no political
Little debate on television means that few cries of protest are carried
the majority of the population. The last national televised political
show, "Svoboda Slova," was pulled off
the air in July.
But even if this approach helps preserve stability in the short term,
politicians and analysts said Putin's drive to silence opposition and
concentrate power in his own hands could end
up facilitating terrorist attacks.
"If you have a system that has no independent sources of information,
independent parliament, no independent justice, or even any independent
business, then you have a system
that is very fragile," said Grigory Yavlinsky, a former presidential
candidate and leader of the liberal Yabloko party. "This is a system
not only dangerous to people but also to
"He is very lonely in this position," Yavlinsky said. "He
all the levers of power in his hands."
The lack of public debate means that few know how to respond to Putin's
on Saturday for the nation to mobilize, Markov said. "People will
able to mobilize because they do
not know what to do," he said. "This is the main problem. People
He added: "The lies of the authorities make it senseless to call
people to unite. They will not unite behind people who lie."
The silence of state media and muzzling of private media over the crisis
could help the terrorists' cause, said Irina Khakamada, a liberal politician
who ran against Putin in this year's
election. Television coverage of Beslan has been muted, with the
state-controlled channels backing off from airing live footage of the
carnage. Izvestia editor Raf Shakirov, meanwhile,
was forced to resign after publishing harrowing pictures from the attack.
"There is fear if no one knows the truth," Khakamada said.
"If people don't
understand, it makes it easier for terrorists to buy people off. If we
slaves, it is easier for them to recruit.
The more things are pushed underground, the better it is for the
Communist deputy chairman Ivan Melnikov said the Kremlin's drive to
down on opposition distracted it from tackling bigger problems like
terrorism. "The actions of the
authorities under Putin over the last few years have all been aimed at
self-preservation: from stamping out the opposition to control over the
media and ensuring election results," he
said. "They've built a 'power vertical' that's proved useless in
the face of
these terrorist threats."
As part of his drive to build a line of power to the president, the
has been systematically helping install loyal leaders in once-unruly
regions. One of the men it put in place was
Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, who replaced Ruslan Aushev.
Aushev maintained ties with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and
Shamil Basayev during Chechnya's de-facto independence in 1996 to 1998
as president never
cracked down on rebel hideouts in Ingushetia, possibly because of his
relations with the rebel leaders and because he feared revenge attacks.
Now Putin risks seeing an upset in the fragile balance of power in the
Caucasus. He expressed fears last week that the Beslan attack aimed to
ignite a tinderbox of ethnic tension
in the region in an attempt to spread separatist sentiment from Chechnya.
"He definitely thinks that there is somebody out there who wants
Russia into collapse," said Brookings Institute Russia scholar Fiona
who attended a meeting with Putin at
Novo-Ogaryovo on Monday evening.
"He said there was now a risk of a much worse situation breaking
out in the
North Caucasus and that he was doing everything he could to prevent an
explosion of ethnic tension," she
In what appears to be the knee-jerk reaction of a former KGB official,
said in his address Saturday that the terrorists were supported by people
who wanted to break up Russia
because they still saw its nuclear capacity as a threat. He made a clear
parallel with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Many observers saw that as a dangerous and direct attack on the West.
meeting Monday, Putin elaborated further. "I didn't say Western countries
were initiating terrorism, and I
didn't say it was policy," he said, according to notes taken by Guardian
reporter Jonathan Steele.
"But we've observed incidents. It's a replay of the mentality of
War," Putin said. "There are certain people who want us to be
internal problems, and they pull
strings here so that we don't raise our heads internationally."
Melnikov, the Communist lawmaker, lashed out at this stance, saying
an attempt to cover up the country's problems with Cold War rhetoric.
are certain forces within
Chechnya and abroad that are interested in the destabilization of Russia.
This was the case and is still the case," Melnikov said. "But
services should deal with this, and they
should get information in time to prevent a turn of events [like Beslan].
This is an internal problem."
Putin conceded that there have been mistakes in his Chechnya policy,
said. She said Putin stressed that the Kremlin planned to spend a great
of effort rehabilitating Chechens
from the psychological shocks of the past 10 years.
Khakamada said Putin must move fast to defuse tensions. "If we
are a weak
nation, we should not be aggressive or we will end up with a more aggressive
enemy," she said. "But if we
don't act aggressively, we will be left alone."
For now, however, the vast majority of the people still place their
Putin, she said. "The trust of the people in the authorities has
totally undermined ... [but] people still live
in hope for a strong leader," she said.
But as Putin continues to concentrate power in his hands, a danger looms
that he could eventually end up being held responsible.
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