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Western Press Review: Assessing The Moscow Bombing

Prague, 10 August 2000 (RFE/RL)- Tuesday's (August 8) bomb explosion in central Moscow, which killed eight people and injured many others, has triggered a number of comments in the Western press. Most see the bombing as an attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies. But analysts are unsure about assigning specific responsibility for the explosion.

Here are our selections from the many assessments of the Moscow bombing:


The Times of Britain says the "bomb was aimed at the Putin presidency." It writes in an editorial: "For Russians who queued yesterday (Wednesday) to give blood for the dozens gravely injured by the Pushkin Square bomb, or who paused briefly in the underpass to leave flowers for the dead, time rolled back a year. That was when their untried new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, reacted to a still mysterious spate of bombings that killed 300 [Russians] by sending the army back to Chechnya."

Now, says the paper, "Mr. Putin faces his first serious challenge. [He] urged people yesterday not to jump to conclusions, saying that it was 'wrong to brand a whole people.' He was right to say so," the editorial goes on, "and it contrasts with his own rush to judgment last year. But it may also be his hope that Chechens were not responsible. For if they were, that would underline the failure of the Russian military -- even at the cost of well over 10,000 dead and wounded -- to end the 'halt the process of disintegration of the State.' It can be no coincidence," the Times concludes, "that this happened exactly a year after Boris Yeltsin plucked Mr. Putin to stardom."


The Guardian daily takes a somewhat different view, finding that "Mr. Putin may turn [the bombing] to his advantage." Its editorial says: "Almost as troubling as the bomb which ripped through a pedestrian subway [during] Tuesday's rush hour is the question of how President Putin may respond. The atrocity -- all the more appalling for the absence of any warning -- was immediately, perhaps too immediately, blamed on the Chechens."

The paper goes on to point out: "Mr. Putin has made a lot of enemies since taking office one year ago this week, any one of whom might wish to ruin his anniversary. They include, for example, nationalist elements within the federation [as in Tatarstan] and those in mainly Muslim former Soviet republics opposed to Mr. Putin's Central Asia [policy]."

It adds: "As Mr. Putin warned yesterday against jumping to conclusions about who planted the bomb, some in Moscow predicted he could plunge into another, broad law-and-order crackdown which could serve a wide multitude of purposes. Such a move would ostensibly be justified by a need to avenge the victims of Pushkin Square. But even if it fails to net the culprits, as was the case last year, Mr. Putin will doubtless use it to ensure that his own position is further strengthened."


Norway's Aftenposten daily writes: "Russia and its president have been reminded in a terrible fashion that the country's most serious problem is far from solved. It is not yet clear who masterminded Tuesday's bombing, but all hints point in the direction of the North Caucasus."

The paper then argues: "New terrorist acts, such as the one in the Moscow underpass, are certain to continue. They will cast serious doubts on the reformist course Putin has vowed to follow. Although many in both Russia and the West fear Putin will become more authoritarian, the majority of the Russians see his strong-handed policies as necessary to lead the country out of its post-Soviet chaos and bring law and order there. But there is no law and order in Chechnya, where the only certainty is that the war will continue."


In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls Chechnya "Putin's problem." The paper's editorial recalls: "A little under a year ago, Russia was hit by an unprecedented wave of terror that cost 300 lives. [Putin,] who had just been promoted from head of the secret service to prime minister, blamed Chechen separatists, labeling them 'rabid beasts' that he would exterminate. The accusations were never proved," the editorial continues. "Instead, watchful residents in the town of Ryazan caught agents of the internal secret service placing explosives in a cellar. Their excuse was that they had been trying to identify 'weaknesses in the activities of the security forces.'"

The editorial goes on to say: "Against this background, it was easy to predict that the latest terrorist attack in Moscow would automatically take on a political dimension before the investigation had even really started. Once more," it adds, "Caucasians in general and Chechens in particular seem to be the only possible suspects for those who had leveled the accusations last time. Although this cannot be ruled out, such sweeping condemnations could pose a threat to the future cohesion of the Russian federation."

It concludes: "[Chechnya's] continued resistance to Moscow's rule has transformed the rebellious Caucasus republic into Mr. Putin's nightmare. Chechnya has become the [scapegoat] that has to take the blame for much of the violence and other wrongs that the Kremlin sees in this giant country with its ethnic, religious and regional tensions."


Britain's Daily Telegraph is also highly suspicious of Putin's motives. It writes in its editorial: "Like all good 'Chekists' -- the name by which alumni of the KGB refer to themselves -- President Putin certainly knows how to turn adversity to maximum advantage. His response to the terrible bombing in Moscow might well have come out of the style manual of his hero, [former KGB chief and former Soviet President] Yuri Andropov --- although not in the way that the cynics might suppose."

The paper goes on: "Many of [the cynics] will suspect that either Mr. Putin or his allies in the Russian security services planted the bomb, much as they were suspected of doing this time last year. They are thought to have done this with the intention of setting up the despised Chechens, thus whipping up public support for a renewed offensive in the Caucasus. There was a compelling motive for such action then," the editorial argues, "but not this time around."

It adds: "Whether staged or otherwise, a Chechen outrage after a supposedly decisive military campaign can only be profoundly embarrassing to Mr. Putin. He might garner backing for renewed tough action -- some expect it this autumn -- but it would potentially come at the price of his reputation for icy competence." The editorial then argues that what it calls Putin's "intriguing remarks" yesterday "to the effect that whole ethnic or racial groups must not be stigmatized or blamed for it suggests someone who wants to play the issue down, not to hype it up. Nor," it concludes, "do the Chechens have an interest in such actions: their strategy is to demoralize the Russian army in Chechnya itself."


The Wall Street Journal Europe recalls that Putin took what it calls "personal charge of [the] investigation into bomb attacks in Moscow and outside that killed some 300 last year. The attacks," the paper says, "were widely blamed on Chechen rebels despite no conclusive evidence that Chechens orchestrated them. The bombs were thus the catalyst for the second all-out Russian-Chechen war in three years."

"For a while," the editorial continues, "Mr. Putin seemed to deliver. Chechen rebels were driven out of Dagestan and forced back to the southern mountain region. Russian forces gained control over most of the territory -- although, charred and destroyed by warfare, it is of little use to anyone right now."

"But," the editorial argues, "Russia has not 'won' its war in Chechnya and probably can never win it. Suicide attacks, snipers and other fighting still claim casualties. Some 2,500 Russian soldiers have been killed in Chechnya so far this year." It adds: "Contrary to the two-week operation Mr. Putin promised last year, Russian forces are there for the grisly, long term. Opinion polls show Russians much less confident now that their government can win its Chechen war. Support for that effort may also be waning."

The paper also says: "It is not clear whether Tuesday's bomb blast was orchestrated by Chechens, any more than it is clear that last year's apartment bombings were. The Chechen leadership has strongly denied it was a Chechen deed. Certainly there is no shortage of nefarious underworld forces in Moscow, Caucasus-linked or otherwise, who might do such a thing."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)