A suicide bomber detonated a powerful explosive belt near Russia's key symbols of power Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 12 just a few steps from Red Square, the Kremlin and the State Duma.
It was the fourth terror attack in six months. The chain of suicide bombings is reshaping the political landscape of the nation, not to mention the personal habits of Russians. By comparison, Israel has seen almost twice as many terror attacks in the past 18 months, but there have been more fatalities from these incidents in Russia.
The blast shattered the picture-window facade of the 19th-century National Hotel and sent people scurrying for cover around Manege Square, which stands at the heart of old Moscow. For many, it brought back the fear of random attacks that has struck this city with increasing frequency since 1999, when a string of still-unsolved apartment bombings killed about 300 Russians.
"I feel a growing disquiet," says Nonna Gazayeva, who works for a fashion firm located a block from the bomb site. "Fear is in the air. Some people are changing their habits, going out less, and parents are afraid for their children."
The independent Ekho Moskvi did a telephone poll after the bombing, asking whether people would accept police checkpoints on Moscow streets to step up security: 56 percent of respondents said no, 44 percent said yes.
Officials were quick to blame terrorists from the breakaway republic of Chechnya for the attack. On Friday, an alleged Chechen suicide bomber killed 44 people on a commuter train in southern Russia. Responsibility for such bombings is seldom claimed by Chechen rebels or anyone else.
President Vladimir Putin, addressing a meeting of regional leaders in the Kremlin when the bomb detonated practically next door, said that "the actions of criminals, terrorists, which we have to confront even today, are aimed against .... the constitutional foundations of Russia."
The attack appears to have been aimed at the Duma, the lower house of parliament, which meets in a gray monolith just across the street from the National Hotel. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told the Interfax news agency that there was at least one and possibly two female bombers and that they had asked a passerby the way to the Duma before the bomb went off.
Elections on Sunday returned a sweeping majority for the United Russia Party, which talks tough on security issues and identifies its main policy as "support for President Vladimir Putin."
In fact, security had been a key theme of the election campaign. Terror bombings have become a dread feature of life in Russia, particularly in Moscow and in southern areas abutting Chechnya. Over 100 people died from the effects of toxic knockout gas sprayed by security forces into a central Moscow theater, where Chechen fighters - including 19 female shakhidy, or "martyrs" - were holding 800 hostages, just over a year ago. Sixteen died when two women shakhidy blew themselves up at a Moscow rock concert in July. Following last Friday's commuter train bombing, ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party doubled its vote to 12 percent in Sunday's polls, used his last TV appearance to declare: "If you don't want bombs on trains, vote for me. I'll be tougher than Putin."
More than 350,000 police and security troops were on hand to protect polling stations Sunday against widely expected terrorist disruptions.
Tuesday's attack proves that "there are no measures that can protect us 100 percent against terrorism," said Nikolai Kovalyov, former head of the FSB, successor to the KGB security agency. "No one doubts this has a direct relationship to the Chechen problem, and this problem requires a political solution."
Yet despite the widespread apprehensions about the growing terror threat, which may well have played a role in pushing voters toward pro-Kremlin and tough-talking nationalist parties, the election campaign featured virtually no media discussion or political debate about the bitter, bloody ongoing conflict in Chechnya, now in its fifth year.
"During the last parliamentary elections in 1999 , when Chechnya was 'a small, victorious war,' it was topic No. 1," for the pro-Kremlin party, says Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of the independent Panorama think tank. "In this campaign it was hardly mentioned at all. The president has said the war is over and the problem is solved." He adds that even liberal parties declined to discuss Chechnya for fear of alienating voters.
Both of Russia's liberal opposition parties, who have in the past urged talks with the Chechen rebels toward a political solution, were shut out by voters and failed to win the 5 percent minimum needed to enter parliament.