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Putin's Reputation for Toughness Put to Test

Deadly attacks of the last two weeks may have hurt the Russian leader's image, but few see any lasting effects.

September 04, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A series of attacks that killed hundreds of Russians in less than two weeks, culminating in Friday's bloody end to a school hostage crisis, has battered President Vladimir V. Putin's long-cultivated image as a tough leader who can defeat the separatist guerrillas of Chechnya.

But analysts and ordinary Moscow residents interviewed Friday said that although the shootout between security forces and hostage-takers at the school in southern Russia underscored the weaknesses of Putin's policies in the rebellious Caucasus region, he was unlikely to suffer lasting political damage or change course.

As prime minister in 1999, Putin sent troops into Chechnya to suppress a separatist regime that had taken power three years earlier. Citing apartment bombings in Russia that authorities blamed on Chechens, he uttered this now-famous quote: "We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. You will forgive me, but if we catch them on the toilet, we will wipe them out in the outhouse."

That tough stance helped propel him to victory in his first presidential campaign in March 2000. The strength of his presidency has been built largely on the promise of stability, although fighting in Chechnya and violence elsewhere related to the war have dragged on.

Few weeks, however, have been as bad as the last two.

Since Aug. 24, suicide bombers and guerrillas believed linked to Chechen rebels have brought down two Russian airliners, killing all 90 on board; set off an explosion in Moscow that killed nine passersby; and staged the school takeover in the southern Russian republic of North Ossetia that ended with chaotic fighting and left more than 200 people dead -- more than half of them children.

The government and security forces "should prevent such situations, rather than deal with their consequences," Maria Azizi, 27, a hotel manager in Moscow, said of the school hostage crisis. "It is hard to say how professionally the special services acted today, but as I understand it, more than 100 people died there and it cannot be considered professional.

"It looks like everything happened by accident, and that means the special services were not sufficiently in control."

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank, described the deaths of so many children as "a psychological catastrophe" for North Ossetia that could further destabilize the Caucasus region.

In order to seriously address the war in Chechnya, negotiations should be launched with the more moderate separatist leaders, another analyst urged.

"It is clear that the Kremlin policy in Chechnya based on force

Putin has long sought to portray the fight in Chechnya as a battle against international terrorism, rather than a civil war sparked by an independence movement. Many outside observers say that the war is rooted in a separatist struggle but that guerrillas do have foreign ties.

"Putin's policy in the Caucasus has entered a complete deadlock," Piontkovsky said. "Putin now needs a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the actions of international terrorism in Russia. He badly needs such a document ... to explain the mistakes of his policy in Chechnya."

Putin has installed a pro-Kremlin administration in the war-torn republic and pushed a kind of "Chechenization" of the war, increasingly turning over the battle against rebels to local forces. But separatists appear to be responding by taking the battle outside Chechnya.

Azizi, the Moscow hotel manager, said she thinks Russians may be momentarily upset with Putin for the deaths of so many children but predicted that he would soon turn the crisis to his political benefit.

"Today, Putin's rating will fall, but tomorrow he will arrive in [North Ossetia] with a two-hour visit," she predicted. "He will shake hands with kids who survived, he'll wish them a quick recovery and a good school year, and his rating will soar again."

Mikhail Polovinkin, 36, a Moscow office worker, predicted that "nothing will change in Chechnya after this hostage taking." He expects some changes elsewhere: "Metal detectors will be placed throughout Russia, but this will not solve the problem."

Furman agreed that there was little immediate chance of change in Russia's policy on Chechnya.

"I think while Putin is in power nothing will change," Furman said. "Putin will never go into negotiations ... [or] change his policy in Chechnya. Nothing will change. The war will go on. Innocent people will continue to die."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and Yakov Ryzhak of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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