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Russia: Putin Strong For Now, But Attacks May Undermine Long-Term Popularity

President Vladimir Putin (file photo) The hostage standoff continued today at a school in Beslan, a town in Russia's southern republic of North Ossetia. Armed militants seized the building yesterday, and continue to hold some 350 people hostage, including 130 children. The demands and even the identity of the hostage takers remain unclear, but the siege is reminiscent of past hostage crises in which Chechen militants have demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from the war-torn republic. The Beslan hostage drama is just the latest in a string of violent incidents over the past week, following the simultaneous explosions of two Russian airplanes and this week's suicide attack outside a Moscow subway station. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly promised to defeat terrorism. But will the recent wave of attacks undermine his authority? RFE/RL reports that Putin's popularity may suffer -- but only in the long term.

Prague, 2 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The latest wave of terrorist attacks are presenting a strong challenge to Putin, who rose to power on promises to foster security and create economic prosperity.

Kiril Koktysh, a Russia expert at Moscow's Institute of International Affairs, told RFE/RL that many Russians are beginning to wonder why authorities are seemingly so powerless in dealing with terrorist crises like those seen over the past week and a half.

"I think [the attacks] are a serious challenge," he said. "And it has prompted people to start asking a question that until now has not been stated out loud -- 'Are the authorities able to react properly? Are they able to solve this problem?'"

Koktysh said the attacks are taking place at a time of deteriorating economic conditions. The price of fuel is rising rapidly, pulling other prices higher. Putin's ratings have begun to suffer as a result.

As the analyst puts it, Russians are looking to their president for explanations why life is getting worse, both in terms of the economy and security. If terrorist acts continue to be committed at the same intensive pace as now, Koktysh said, it will be a "very tough test" for Putin.

Aleksei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees. He said until now Putin has remained relatively shielded from public anger over mounting insecurity. But if terrorist attacks continue, the Russian president may finally feel the heat.

"If this frequency of [terrorist] acts prevails, and if big cities are targeted at the same frequency as now for a long time, I can't exclude that Putin will be asked to answer several questions," Malashenko said.

Malashenko said Russians may begin to remind Putin of the promise he made back in 1999 -- the start of Moscow's second campaign in Chechnya. Putin, still a political newcomer, made a firm power to rid the country of terrorism and solve the problem of Chechnya once and for all. Five years later, that promise clearly remains unfulfilled.
"In terms of his popularity, obviously the effect [of recent terrorist acts] is negative. But it is going to be heavily muffled by the fact that there is a high degree of press self-censorship with regard to Chechnya."

Still, many analysts say that Putin's popularity will not be noticeably affected in the short term. Nicholas Redman, a Russia analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, notes that the state controls a large part of the Russian media. As a result, it is often difficult for the public to gauge the scope of the Chechen war and potentially related terrorist acts -- and, by extension, to determine to what degree Putin is responsible for those problems.

"In terms of his popularity, obviously the effect [of recent terrorist acts] is negative. But it is going to be heavily muffled by the fact that there is a high degree of press self-censorship with regard to Chechnya," Redman said.

However, Redman -- like the others -- said the situation could change rapidly. More hostage crises or airline crashes could have Putin facing a hostage public sooner than he thinks.

Putin -- who interrupted a Black Sea vacation following the plane crashes and today canceled a trip to Turkey in order to monitor the school siege -- seems aware that his public image may be at risk.

Still, there is little sign that even crises like the Beslan siege are enough to force Putin to the negotiating table on Chechnya.

Malashenko said it is unlikely the Kremlin will enter talks with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. The Chechen Constitution -- passed last year in a referendum -- prohibits any possibility of an independent Chechnya. And Chechen society has become so fractured that even a leader of Maskhadov's stature can be said to control only a portion of the fighters there.

Maskhadov's government has denied any relation to the Beslan hostage crisis, saying it rejects attempts by the Russian government to tie the incident to Chechnya's separatist leadership.

Malashenho said continued attacks within Russia may heighten criticism of Putin's policy in Chechnya, which continues to allow a degree of self-governance through an elected, though heavily pro-Kremlin, administration.

The recent wave of violence coincided with the 29 August vote to elect a replacement for assassinated Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. The Kremlin's favored successor, Alu Alkhanov, won the ballot easily.

But if chaos continues, many hard-line advocates in the Russian military establishment, and even pro-Moscow Chechen politicians, may push for direct military rule. "The military was against elections in Chechnya. They suggested sending a military governor instead and some candidates were even named," Malashenko said. "By the way, this idea is even supported by [some] Chechens. I have just returned from the election [in Chechnya]. I spoke about that with Chechens, and indeed, people accept this idea."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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