Resurgent violence in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya, which has seen two devastating suicide bombings this week, is likely to cast a cloud over President Vladimir Putin's annual State of the Nation report to parliament Friday.
For Mr. Putin, who hopes to win full control of parliament and his own reelection in polls due within a year, limiting the political fallout from the 3-1/2-year-old conflict may be crucial.
Experts predict that his hour-long speech will stress his achievements in creating modest economic growth and his ambitious plans to overhaul Russia's bloated state bureaucracy. His brief statements on Chechnya, they say, will be upbeat and cast Russia's military campaign in the breakaway region as part of the global war against terrorism.
"Formally, there are some achievements for Putin to talk about," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "He will say that the military phase of the conflict is over and that the peace phase has begun. Unfortunately, recent events and the general situation in Chechnya do not provide supporting evidence for these achievements."
The Kremlin plan involves granting Chechnya limited self-government and turning over most combat operations against the rebels to a recently recruited 11,000-man Chechen paramilitary militia. The first step was a March referendum, in which Chechens overwhelmingly adopted a constitution that ties the mainly Muslim republic permanently to Russia.
Though many experts question the Soviet-style 96 percent vote in favor of the plan, even some critics of the Kremlin say it reflects the Chechens' exhaustion and powerful desire for peace after more than a decade of war, anarchy, and terror. "The voting process is highly suspect, but the result is probably real: Chechens desperately want peace, even if they must remain part of Russia," says Sergei Khaikin, a sociologist with the Validata public opinion agency who specializes in Chechnya. "But the wish for peace is not enough as long as conflict remains the real state of affairs."
Despite repeated Kremlin promises of military withdrawal, some 80,000 Russian troops continue to handle most security and counterinsurgency operations in the republic. About a dozen Russian personnel die weekly in combat with the rebels. Over the past year, rebel fighters have adopted suicide tactics seldom seen in Chechnya before, directing their attacks as much against local pro-Moscow Chechens as against the Russians.
On Monday a suicide squad detonated a huge truck bomb inside a government compound in Znamenskoye, northern Chechnya, killing 59 people, mainly pro-Moscow Chechens working for the local administration and the FSB security service. Two days later two female bombers struck a religious festival organized by the pro-Kremlin Unity Party in a village near Grozny.
Sixteen people died in that attack but the intended target, Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed leader Akhmad Kadyrov, escaped unharmed. Russian officials say the Chechen nationalist movement, which led the victorious 1994-96 war for independence from Russia, has been taken over in recent years by Muslim extremist groups from abroad, such as Al Qaeda, who have brought with them ruthless terrorist tactics that mainly target innocent civilians. President Putin was quick to charge that a terrorist attack against foreigners in Saudi Arabia this week, which killed 34 people, bore "exactly the same signature" as Monday's truck bombing in Chechnya.
That message, frequently repeated by the Kremlin since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, may have helped to mute Western criticism of alleged Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. But some Russian experts say the connection between Chechen rebels and outside terror groups is tenuous and mainly for foreign consumption. "The Chechen resistance is not an Al Qaeda import, and never was," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent security expert. "Some Chechen groups may have accepted help from outside, but the resistance is based internally, by a big part of the Chechen population who continue to support the rebels."
Human rights groups also charge that Russian security forces have employed terror tactics to compel Chechens to accept Kremlin-authored terms of peace, including the use of death squads to remove even moderate Chechen oppositionists. "All our information gives us grounds to say that within the federal forces there is a special group whose task is to kidnap, torture, and then kill Chechens," says Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, the only Russian human rights group to maintain a permanent presence in Chechnya.
Salambek Maigov, a representative of rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, told the liberal daily Kommersant that the suicide bombings are probably the work not of international terrorists, but of embittered relatives of people murdered by death squads. "Violence begets violence," he said. "What do you expect in a situation where more than 150 Chechens disappear every month."