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A Victory for Putin, If Toll Stays Put

The number of hostage deaths is low enough in comparison with survivors that officials can portray the rescue operation as a success.

October 27, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW -- The operation by Russian commandos to free 750 hostages in a Moscow theater raised a cynical question: How many hostage deaths would Russians accept?

The question is crucial to the public's response to President Vladimir V. Putin's handling of the hostage crisis -- and to its support for or opposition to his military campaign in Chechnya.

Ninety hostage deaths would be a tragedy in any country. But although 90 dead might automatically provoke a huge political backlash in some countries, particularly if many of those deaths were caused by lethal fumes, the authorities here can portray that number as a victory. That's especially true in a situation where the Kremlin is maintaining a tight rein on the nation's major television stations.

"Ninety is more or less acceptable. If it goes up to 200, it will be a different story," Andrei A. Piontkovsky, a political analyst at the Moscow think tank the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies, said Saturday.

Liliya F. Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, was sure that the casualties would have been lower if Putin had compromised with the Chechen rebels who took the theater audience hostage and if he had opened peace talks on Chechnya.

But Shevtsova said she believed that many Russians supported the storming because it averted an even greater number of deaths.

In fact, after the crisis broke, Interfax journalist Olga Chernyak, who was among the hostages, was widely shown on television as saying that had the building not been stormed, all the captives would have died.

"Now President Putin is in the situation of a winner. In the eyes of many Russians, he won. It's a victory. Wait for the Monday newspapers and see how many pundits are calling this a victory," Shevtsova said.

Doubts about Putin's tough policy in Chechnya were most marked during the three-day siege.

With more than 700 ordinary people trapped and helpless in the heart of Moscow, Russians were for the first time questioning the sense of Putin's tough military operation against separatist Chechen rebels.

The siege exposed Putin's biggest blind spot, the issue on which he is most sensitive. He took power as president in 2000 after mounting a brutal but initially popular campaign to crush Chechen rebel resistance, and he has not shifted his policy since.

That campaign has been repeatedly criticized by Russian and international human rights groups because of abuses by Russian forces. One of the groups' main concerns has been the arrest and disappearance of hundreds of Chechen men.

But because of its proximity to Muscovites, the hostage siege struck home in a way that other recent Chechen attacks have not. In August, Chechen rebels shot down a giant Russian helicopter, killing 119 servicemen, and on May 9, terrorists bombed a Victory Day parade in Kaspiysk, in southern Russia, killing 44 people, including many children. Neither attack dented Putin's popularity or raised serious doubts about his ironfisted Chechen policy.

This time, Putin did avoid a mistake he made in August 2000, when he was castigated for remaining on vacation as the Kursk submarine tragedy unfolded. Instead, he took pains to appear in control of the crisis and canceled a trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Mexico, where he was to meet with President Bush.

Then, after the siege ended, he put on a white hospital coat and a compassionate face to visit surviving hostages in the hospital, where he joked with and encouraged them.

Saturday evening, he wore black for a somber television address to the nation that left no doubt that he would continue his tough line in Chechnya.

Calling the Chechen terrorists "scumbags," he asserted that the storming of the theater had achieved the impossible, by saving hundreds.

"We have proven that it is impossible to bring Russia to its knees," he declared.

It was an emotional and powerful address, which acknowledged the grief of bereaved families while suggesting that Putin has no alternative but to continue his Chechen policy.

"We were not able to save everybody. Please, forgive us," he said, before branding the rebels "international terrorists."

"They do not have a future -- while we do," he concluded.

Unlike during the 1994-96 Chechen war, when an independent Russian television station, NTV, ran searing footage of the conflict and fed strong antiwar sentiment, Russians are now complacent and largely unaware of the actions of Russian troops in Chechnya.

A key reason for the ignorance is Putin's moves after becoming president to bring the broadcast media to heel and suppress criticism of his rule.

Analyst Piontkovsky said the media had already begun to portray the rescue operation as a triumph.

"I have already heard this formula -- 'a brilliant success' -- many times on television from Putin supporters and politicians," he said, predicting that the Russian public will support tougher action in Chechnya, even if only temporarily.

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