Aftermath of Russia bombing

Putin warned yesterday against assuming Chechen guilt in the blast.

In the wake of a fatal bomb blast here, some Russians are wondering what kind of democracy they will have after the smoke clears.

The bombing - which some senior Russian politicians are already pinning on Chechen terrorists seeking revenge for Russia's invasion of their breakaway republic - has prompted fresh calls for a law-and-order crackdown.

"Moscow is on the frontline of a war, and this war will go on for a long time, so there is no alternative but to learn to live with it," says Irina Ladodo, a security specialist at Moscow's Institute of Social and Political Studies. "We need to impose tough security measures. Probably democracy is costing Russia too dearly."

Russian police said Wednesday that they had detained two suspects in connection with the bombing - one Chechen and another from the neighboring north Caucasus republic of Dagestan - but Russian President Vladimir Putin cautioned against automatically linking the incident to the war in Chechnya.

Russian troops invaded the breakaway republic 11 months ago, on an antiterrorist campaign directed by Mr. Putin, to bring law and order after a series of bomb blasts last year left nearly 300 dead and Russians clamoring for revenge.

But instead of accusing Putin of not following through on promises of "law and order," many Muscovites say they want even tougher security measures.

That response is raising new questions about democracy in Russia, while at the same time the bombing gives an advantage to Moscow's tough mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, in a local power struggle with Putin.

"Here it is only possible to take a hard line - there is no other way" to deal with "terrorists," said Tatiana Bakhrova, a young professional who was among the first to enter Moscow's reopened underground subway terminal yesterday at Pushkin Square, where a bomb blast Tuesday evening left seven dead and scores wounded in the heart of Russia's capital.

"If a bombing like this has happened, a harder line should be taken," she said, after gingerly stepping over the 18-inch-wide impact crater in the near-darkness of the subway underpass.

Ms. Bakhrova stopped short of pointing the finger at Chechens, however, who were vilified in Moscow last year in the hysteria that followed the first bombings. But she said that Chechens "should be sent back to live in their district," and punished if found responsible.

Moscow security forces have been on heightened alert in recent weeks, and Putin personally took control of the investigation into the bombing.

Russian forces control much of Chechnya, except for tracts of mountains in the south. They have declared "victory," but guerrillas inflict casualties almost daily in ambush and bomb attacks, and have threatened a suicide bombing campaign.

On August 6, 1996, rebels captured the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the first Chechen war. The date is considered independence day by the guerrillas and is always marked by anti-Russian rhetoric. Secret caches of weapons and explosives have been reportedly found in recent weeks.

A second bomb in the vicinity of Tuesday's blast was discovered and defused, while Interfax news agency reported that on Wednesday a bag of TNT was discovered at a Moscow railway terminal. Wednesday also marked exactly one year since Putin was appointed Russia's acting prime minister.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov denied any Chechen involvement in Tuesday's blast, though Mayor Luzhkov almost immediately pronounced an "obvious Chechen connection." Witness testimony " was 100 percent Chechnya," declared Luzhkov, who has fought to maintain tough security measures, including unconstitutional restrictions that have been used selectively on ethnic Caucasians in Moscow.

In a Putin move that analysts say is aimed at curbing Luzhkov's power - in line with a broader national attempt to rein in all independent forces, such as wealthy oligarchs and powerful local politicians - a Kremlin official, just hours before the Tuesday blast, had called for Moscow to adhere to the law and become an "open" city.

Under Luzhkov 's watch last year, thousands of ethnic Caucasians were rounded up and their papers examined. At one point, officials announced the arrest of 20,000 "suspects" in the bomb blasts.

But in the aftermath of the latest blast, Luzhkov 's tough stance seems to be what many Russians want to hear - a result that could temporarily foil any Putin attempt to trim the mayor's power.

"One Russian characteristic is lack of discipline, and that makes it difficult for us," says Lydia Petrovna, a medical doctor who traveled to work by subway yesterday despite the increased tension. "There should be more measures. I hope Putin can do it. We voted for him to do it."

But Putin may be finding that campaigning on a "law and order" ticket is easier than implementing the policy. Police yesterday were reported to be conducting blanket checks of basements and cellars, and were inspecting most trucks that entered the city.

"It's very difficult to organize, because to prevent such attacks, you must turn every Muscovite into a policeman," said police officer Andrei Zhukov, who finally let pedestrians back into the blackened Pushkin Square subway underpass. "It's difficult to deal with terrorism, and it's impossible to intensify our work," says Mr. Zhukov. "We are already pushed to the limit, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week."

Some Russians voiced skepticism about a Chechen connection, and one liberal radio station conducted a telephone poll that found that more than 3 out of 5 Muscovites blamed Chechens for the blast - an expression of doubt that a year ago, in the post bombing anti-Chechen panic, would have been unthinkable.

"It's a mistake to tie everything to Chechnya. We should check and check 100 times before we blame them," says Galina Grigoryevna, a newspaper vendor a few steps away from Pushkin station."Possibly it was meant to imitate Chechen actions, as a cover for the war," she says. "The tough measures are a constant lie from the authorities - I have a lot of doubts about whether the Chechens were involved."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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