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Sunday, September 12, 2004

Yahoo News > AP > Russia Attacks Prompt New Policy Fears

A quick succession of terror attacks has shattered the image of strength assiduously cultivated by President Vladimir Putin, leaving the Kremlin grasping for a response to what has widely been dubbed "Russia's Sept. 11."
Stunned by the bloodbath at the school in the southern town of Beslan, even some of Putin's most fervent supporters are urging him to reverse his practice of sidelining the opposition and muzzling the media. Russia's top liberal politicians and commentators are calling for stronger public control over ineffectual law enforcement and other government agencies.
Most expect, however, that the Kremlin will reach for harsh, Soviet-style levers instead, refusing to negotiate its way out of the Chechen war for fear it will look weak and embolden other separatist movements in Russia.
Putin spent his first four-year term establishing rigid lines of authority _ reining in ambitious regional governors, cowing influential business leaders, putting parliament in his pocket. He marginalized politicians who favor negotiations on Chechnya, ensuring potential communication channels will remain closed.
Putin's response to the terror crisis indicates no change of direction after Beslan, where about 330 people were killed, nearly half of them children, after a terrorist gang including Chechens took more than 1,200 hostage.
Over the previous week, 100 people died in twin airplane bombings and a suicide bombing in Moscow.
In a televised address to the shaken nation last week, Putin promised measures to strengthen Russia's unity, improve crisis management, establish a new system of control in the Caucasus region and overhaul law enforcement, which he admitted was corrupt.
For the outside world, Putin's address carried an ominous undertone. Signalling growing Kremlin irritation with what it sees as Western "double standards" in dealing with the Chechen rebels, he said terror attacks on Russia are encouraged by those who fear its nuclear might. Most analysts interpreted that as a veiled attack on the West, including the United States, and a warning that it may lose Russia as an ally.
"The differences in assessing the Beslan events could lead to the most serious estrangement between Russia and the West since the Soviet times," said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.
Beslan also refocused attention on the way bad news is reported _ or suppressed _ in Putin's Russia.
While harsh criticism of Putin's handling of the crisis filled the print media, the editor of the leading daily Izvestia was forced to resign after publishing a frank account of the school siege with harrowing, full-page pictures of wounded and dead children. And public opinion seems to support Putin's handling of Beslan, influenced perhaps by state-controlled television, which spared him any criticism.
The Levada-Center, a respected independent pollster, surveyed 500 Moscow residents and said 60 percent approved of Putin's handling of Beslan, 28 percent were critical and the rest were undecided. No margin of error was given.
Analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov predicted Putin would now move toward further strengthening central power by merging some of Russia's 89 regions, though at the risk of awakening dormant ethnic conflicts.
Putin told regional government and security officials in Beslan that every effort must be made to curb interethnic conflicts in Russia _ where one in every seven citizens is Muslims.
Characteristically, he didn't say how.
Kremlin loyalists say the nation has no choice but to give more power and money to law enforcement and the military. Some favor restoring the power and prestige of the Soviet-era KGB.
Yet Putin's critics say he has already made every effort to strengthen the KGB's fragmented successors, only to see them completely helpless during the latest crisis. They say the Kremlin's efforts to sideline the opposition, tame parliament and control the media have weakened Russia by freeing the inept bureaucracy from public oversight.
Putin initially reacted coldly to opposition proposals to set up a parliamentary investigation similar to the U.S. one that examined 9/11. He said it could turn into a "political show." Later, he said he would welcome a probe by the upper house _ which consists entirely of appointed Kremlin loyalists.
The opposition has argued that only an open, independent inquiry can objectively investigate allegations of official negligence and corruption that helped the terrorists.
Investigators say explosives had been brought to the school before the attack under the guise of repairs and over 30 heavily armed attackers drove freely to their target through an area packed with police checkpoints.
"Russia has become a target of choice for terrorists because it's so vulnerable," Valery Tishkov, a Caucasus expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview. "It's easy to talk your way through a police inspector here and find other loopholes."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Vladimir Isachenkov has covered Russian politics for The Associated Press since 1991.

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