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Time Europe, July 12, 2003

Awfully Familiar
The war in Chechnya - now sending suicide bombers to Moscow - is becoming Russia's version of Palestine

By Yuri Zarakhovich

Yuri Shchekochikhin could foretell the future. In May, as a wave of suicide attacks in Chechnya killed 77 people and wounded over 300 others, he made a prediction. "We have entered a new stage. It's Palestine," he told TIME. "Now suicide bombers will start hitting Russia." His grim prophecy came true on July 5, when two female Chechen suicide bombers killed 14 and injured over 60 by detonating explosive belts at a Moscow rock festival. But "Shchekoch," as he is nicknamed, wasn't around to see the attack. The crusading journalist and politician had died under mysterious circumstances two days earlier. And last week, just five days after his funeral, another female suicide bomber was apprehended as she tried to enter a posh downtown Moscow restaurant. A bomb inside a rucksack she was carrying exploded in the street, killing a Federal Security Service officer who was trying to defuse it. Shchekoch would have taken no satisfaction in being proved right.

Chechen attacks inside Russia are nothing new. In September 1999, over 300 people were killed in a series of apartment block bombings, which were blamed on the Chechens. And last October, 129 hostages and 41 Chechen terrorists died after Russian special forces stormed a theater that the Chechens had occupied. But the two most recent bombings are different, because the people behind the attacks represent a younger generation of Chechens who, like the Palestinians before them, have known nothing but war - and who have become radicalized as a result. "We condemn the terror," says Salambek Maigov, Chechen rebel President Aslan Maskhadov's representative in Moscow, "but neither the Kremlin nor we can control the situation any longer."

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to reassert his control. "Terrorists must be plucked out of the basements and caves and destroyed," he said after the attack on the rock festival. The tough talk echoed his promise during the 1999 election campaign "to rub out the terrorists on the john," remarks that preceded a brutal crackdown in Chechnya in which an untold number of Chechens and at least 6,000 Russian soldiers died.

Shortly before his death, Shchekochikhin, the 53-year-old Deputy Chair of the State Duma's Security Committee and an outspoken opponent of the war in Chechnya, warned against just such a response: "Putin seeks to answer the mounting wave of Palestinian-type bombing terror with more terror of his own," he said. "But it will only pour more oil onto the growing fire."

Even before the latest bombings, Putin was ratcheting up the pressure. Going back on a pledge to reduce his forces in Chechnya, he sent 1,000 airborne troops and an artillery battalion there last month. Though checkpoints in Grozny had been dismantled in the spring to show that peace was breaking out, more checkpoints were established around Chechen villages last month. And Russian soldiers have never stopped their practice of rounding up suspects in midnight raids. The detainees often disappear without a trace or are later found dead. "Putin has already pushed his forces to the limit," says a senior federal government official. "Now he is sending in his last reserves. Putin will carry on blindly, spilling more Russian and Chechen blood."

A handful of liberals in the Duma - Shchekochikhin among them - have been desperately calling for talks to settle the dispute. But their arguments go practically unreported, since the last of the independent television stations was closed down last month. Some suspect that Shchekochikhin himself may have been silenced, too. His death was bizarre and its cause remains unexplained. According to an aide, Shchekochikhin developed a slight fever on July 16 as he was en route to Ryazan, 300 km east of Moscow. When he returned home the next day, the fever worsened and his skin began peeling and breaking. When an ambulance was finally called a day later, he was so weak that he had to be carried to the car. He fell into a coma and died nine days later. Doctors suggest he had an allergic reaction to an unidentified substance, but his family, friends and colleagues in the liberal Yabloko Party demand an international investigation.

Terror attacks against Russian civilians could hurt Putin in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections next year. But he could also use the crisis to cement his hold on power; it was the 1999 wave of apartment bombings that helped propel him into office in the first place. "Bombings and elections go together in Moscow," noted an editorial in the English-language Moscow Times.

"At the Kremlin they believe that Russians will learn to live with these bombings, like the Soviets once learned to live with chronic food shortages," says the senior federal government official. Putin lumps the Chechens in with al-Qaeda, calling them "the most dangerous part of the international terrorist network." But Shchekochikhin had a different analysis. "All Putin's talk of international terrorism in Chechnya is wildly off the mark," he said last May. The crisis is not about terrorism, but about "the bloody melee that threatens to wipe out the Chechen people first - and Russia second."


See also:

War in Chechnya

Time Europe, July 12, 2003

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