Blast tests Putin's antiterror pledge as election nears

A subway bombing on Friday killed at least 39, raising concerns about the Kremlin's response to such attacks.

A devastating terrorist attack on a crowded Moscow metro train Friday, which killed at least 39 commuters and injured 122, has ratcheted up public fear and tensions on the eve of Russia's long-awaited presidential election.

The apparent suicide bombing, blamed by authorities on Chechen rebels, seemed to echo the horrifying autumn of 1999, when a series of still-unsolved apartment explosions killed almost 300 people just as Russia was headed into the cycle of parliamentary and presidential elections that brought Vladimir Putin to power.

Four years down the road, Mr. Putin is firmly ensconced in the Kremlin. With public support hovering over 70 percent, there seems little possibility that any of his six little-known rivals will unseat him on March 14.

But the carnage that struck a thronged downtown-bound train at rush hour Friday morning casts a shadow on Putin's pledge to crush the terrorist threat that continues to stalk Russian cities.

"Our security services can't do anything to stop this. We're completely open to attack," said Oleg Saltykov, a middle-aged accountant who watched victims of the bombing being carried to ambulances near his central Moscow home. "This is the second time it's happened right around here."

Acknowledging that he may be vulnerable on this point, Putin says, "I do not rule out that this (bombing) could be used in debates taking place in the Russian presidential election and as a lever to put pressure on the current head of state."

All of Russia's major opposition leaders have declined to run against Putin, leaving little doubt about the outcome of the election. The last of six contenders registered Sunday for the month-long campaign that opens next week.

Other players on the political stage

Candidates include a Putin friend and ally, Sergei Mironov, who frankly admits he's running to help the Kremlin. Two political parties, the Communists and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, put up symbolic candidates.

"It's a bit of a joke," says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "We have this field of funny little candidates, whose only function is to be also-rans."

Rounding out the list are Irina Khakamada, an outspoken liberal, and Sergei Glazyev, a left-nationalist economist who is considered by some experts as a potentially weighty presidential contender - after Putin retires in 2008.

Neither Ms. Khakamada nor Mr. Glazyev enjoys the support of their own parties, a sign of how completely Putin has swept the political stage.

In a bizarre twist, another presidential candidate seems to have disappeared. Since Thursday, no one has heard from Ivan Rybkin, whose tiny Liberal Russia Party is financed by exiled tycoon and Putin nemesis Boris Berezovsky.

His campaign manager, Ksenia Ponomaryova, says that she and Mr. Rybkin's wife, Albina, filed a missing-person report with police on Sunday and were "beside ourselves with worry" over his possible fate.

Although Russian electoral rules mandate free media time for all candidates, it seems unlikely that terrorism, or any other issue, will get much of an airing in the coming campaign. The Kremlin has already announced that Putin will take no part in the series of televised debates scheduled for the next month, leaving his six rivals with little option but to argue with one another.

Perils of a 'managed democracy'

"This election process has been supervised by the Kremlin from beginning to end," says Mr. Petrov. "But the problem inherent in 'managed democracy' is that after it's been at work for a while, there is no real competition anymore. That's what we see now: Public politics has become little more than a charade."

Russian politicians seem especially unwilling to criticize the Kremlin's handling of security issues, despite the expanding number of deadly suicide bombings in Russian cities and deepening public fear.

The site of the attack was not far from the Dubrovka Theater, where a squad of Chechen suicide bombers seized 800 hostages in an October 2002 raid. More than 120 hostages and all the Chechen fighters died when security forces assaulted the building after pumping it full of toxic "sleeping gas."

The only presidential candidate to raise a doubt was Mr. Glazyev, who said the subway blast showed "the authorities are not protecting us adequately." But he quickly added: "It is clear that whoever committed this terrorist act wanted to destabilize the situation ahead of elections. The main target was the president, and we ought not to attack state authority."

Sniffing out fear at the Kremlin

Some experts say Putin's only real opponent in this campaign may be - Mr. No Vote. Under Russian law, if voter turnout is less than 50 percent, the election can be annulled, which would destroy Putin's legitimacy, at least temporarily. A bimonthly tracking poll by the nonstate VTsIOM public-opinion agency suggests interest is dropping fast; the number intending to vote decreased by 8 percentage points - to just 58 percent - in January.

"The authorities are afraid of something," says Valeria Novodvorskaya, leader of the small, libertarian Democratic Union. "They refuse to take part in a real democratic process, or to allow any debates in these elections. Perhaps what they fear is a voter boycott."

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