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St Peterburg Times, September 10, 2004

Putin Faces His Biggest Challenge So Far

By Catherine Belton
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 most traumatic week of his presidency.

The Tuesday night visit was not Putin's first to the chapel. More than four years ago, as Boris Yeltsin's newly anointed heir apparent, he attended a 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 outhouse."

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 highly 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 ensure 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 crisis."

But a bruised Putin looks to be keeping above the fray even as a storm of 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 not know how to do their job properly, Reuters reported.

But it looks like the Kremlin is not taking any chances. Calls by the Duma's Rodina faction for the dissolution of parliament over the crisis never made 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 problems that, it said, had given birth to the terrorist threat. Their cries were muted and, without coverage, carried no political weight.

Little debate on television means that few cries of protest are carried to the majority of the population. The last national televised political talk 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, no 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 that is not only dangerous to people but also to Putin.

"He is very lonely in this position," Yavlinsky said. "He has concentrated all the levers of power in his hands."

The lack of public debate means that few know how to respond to Putin's call on Saturday for the nation to mobilize, Markov said. "People will not be able to mobilize because they do not know what to do," he said. "This is the main problem. People don't understand."

He added: "The lies of the authorities make it senseless to call for the 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 are slaves, it is easier for them to recruit. The more things are pushed underground, the better it is for the terrorists."

Communist deputy chairman Ivan Melnikov said the Kremlin's drive to clamp 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 Kremlin 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 warlord Shamil Basayev during Chechnya's de-facto independence in 1996 to 1998 and 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 North 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 to push Russia into collapse," said Brookings Institute Russia scholar Fiona Hill, 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 said.

In what appears to be the knee-jerk reaction of a former KGB official, Putin 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. At his 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 the Cold War," Putin said. "There are certain people who want us to be focused on 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 it was an attempt to cover up the country's problems with Cold War rhetoric. "There 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 the secret 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, Hill said. She said Putin stressed that the Kremlin planned to spend a great deal 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 trust in Putin, she said. "The trust of the people in the authorities has been 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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St Peterburg Times, September 10, 2004

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