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Chechnya Policy Gives Russians Pause Amid Crisis

Theater takeover brings war closer to home and poses a leadership test for Putin. Some question why troops remain in the republic.

October 25, 2002|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The hard-line policy of President Vladimir V. Putin in Chechnya had earned him political dividends, even if there was no sign of clear victory and thousands were killed. To many Russians, he had restored the country's honor.

But the takeover of a theater Wednesday in the heart of Moscow by a gang of Chechen men and women prepared to die for their cause looks as if it could deplete Putin's political capital.

It could even force a reexamination of whether Putin badly miscalculated in thinking that a war in the separatist Russian republic would be winnable for Moscow in the first place.

Like President Bush after Sept. 11, Putin faces a leadership test. His effectiveness will be judged by how he handles this crisis.

Since the rebels' takeover of the theater, muted criticism of the Chechen war on the streets of the Russian capital has broken into the open. Political figures and relatives of the hostages are asking why Russian troops are still in Chechnya.

On Thursday, family members of those inside the theater gathered hundreds of signatures supporting an immediate end to the war. A five-minute "instant" poll of 3,000 callers by the Echo of Moscow radio station found 69% in favor of settling the conflict by peaceful means.

Ordinary Russians are now asking whether Putin can save the lives of the 700 mostly Russian hostages without making humiliating concessions to the rebels. Can he somehow wrest the initiative from the rebels and redeem a policy that seems as if it has accomplished little beyond inflicting misery for both sides?

After three years during which more than 3,000 Russian soldiers have perished and 80,000 troops have remained tied down in the tiny Caucasian republic, Putin finds himself at almost the same place his predecessor and mentor, Boris N. Yeltsin, was six years ago. In the first Chechen war, which ended in 1996, Yeltsin's government lost control and was forced to concede de facto independence after military humiliations and terrorist attacks by separatists.

"A lot will depend on the final outcome of the hostage situation," said Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographic Research at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a private think tank.

"However, it is clear that this terrorist act will first and foremost change public sentiments and public opinion about Chechnya," he said.

Petrov noted that for Moscow and Muscovites, the war had been very remote and obscure. Now, he said, "the war has already come to their doors. Their perception of it will be firsthand and more intense."

"Public concern over the war in Chechnya and the level of popular involvement in deciding what to do about it will rise," Petrov said. And Putin -- who promised to put an end to terrorism and bring back stability and security -- will have to try something different, like negotiations, if he hopes to succeed, Petrov said.

Could it lead to a shift in the political winds? Petrov and other analysts think so.

Putin moved from being prime minister to the Russian presidency in 2000 largely because of the popularity of his sending in troops to restore Moscow's power over the breakaway republic. That won the gratitude of Russian nationalists and, even more so, the army and police, who were given free rein to root out and eradicate separatist resistance.

Meanwhile, Putin managed to ignore or deflect Western criticism of human rights abuses in Chechnya, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: He said that the Chechen rebels had become an extension of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

For most of Putin's presidency, Russian opinion was quiet about the war. It is not on the front pages here, with most people seemingly resigned to a steady toll of slain soldiers as a price to be paid against Islamic militancy and lawlessness in the Caucasus and to keep Chechnya within the Russian federation.

With the war out of sight, it also was out of mind for ordinary Russians, except the families of the volunteer "contract" soldiers from the provinces who do the bulk of the fighting in exchange for the opportunity to earn decent salaries and, for some, whatever can be extorted from the Chechen population.

After the theater takeover a few miles from the president's Kremlin office, however, the public will no longer be able to ignore Chechnya. And with presidential elections only a little more than a year away, the war may again become a political hot potato for Putin.

Either way, how Putin addresses the fate of the hostages -- through negotiations or through force -- presents problems for the president. And the government's claims that the war has been won have even more of a hollow ring now.

But the Chechen rebels also may have hurt themselves and their cause.

Seizing a theater full of innocents -- in the glare of round-the-clock media coverage -- the militants seem to only prove Putin's assertions that separatists are nothing but bandits and terrorists. In other words, their takeover did nothing to shed light on any legitimate grievances and the suffering of the people under Russian military authority.

"The hostage drama will become a turning point in the world's attitude toward the conflict in Chechnya," predicted Russian military analyst Alexander I. Zhilin, who said the rebels' tactics clearly put them in the same category as Bin Laden.

"From now on, the world will view the war in Chechnya not as purely Russia's domestic problem, but as part of a large-scale war against terrorism," he said.

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