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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Demonization And Its Discontents

Washington, 11 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Tuesday's explosion in Moscow has thrown into high relief the gulf that exists in Russia between those who are prepared to play on prejudices against the Chechens and those who recognize the dangers of demonizing an entire people.

Immediately after the blast, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said that there were "many indications" that Chechen rebels were responsible for the bombing. But less than 24 hours later, President Vladimir Putin backed away from such assertions when he noted on national television that "it is very wrong when we brand one nation, because criminals, terrorists above all, do not have a nation or a belief."

This difference in approach reflects a longstanding difference in the attitudes and calculations of the two men. Since at least October 1993, Luzhkov has played on the prejudices of some Russians against people from the North Caucasus. In the wake of the conflict between then-President Boris Yeltsin and the country's parliament, Luzhkov issued a decree expelling from the Russian capital "people of Caucasian nationality."

He has regularly invoked its provisions in the years since that time, most recently during what was called Operation Whirlwind at the start of Moscow's second campaign in Chechnya. And because his decree was enforced with the assistance of federal authorities, many other localities followed his lead and sought to deflect popular anger by moving against the Chechens.

And Luzhkov's playing to popular prejudice and extremist nationalist attitudes in this case appears to be part and parcel of his larger agenda which has included demands that Moscow seek the return to Russia of all or part of Crimea from Ukraine.

Whatever his personal views, Putin by way of contrast has been much more cautious in this regard.

Part of the reason for that appears to lie in his understanding that sweeping attacks on the Chechens as a whole, or on Muslims as a group, could complicate Russia's relationship with the West and with Muslim countries as well as Moscow's ties with its own, increasingly numerous Muslim minorities.

When he launched the campaign in Chechnya last year, he initially made some sweeping statements about the Chechen nation, but he quickly backed away when it was pointed out that such remarks which suggested that Moscow was interested in exterminating the Chechens as a group were not playing well either in the Middle East or in Western Europe.

Another reason for Putin's caution appears to be his understanding that a broad attack on the Chechens as a whole has the effect of driving those Chechens who might be willing to cooperate with Moscow into the hands of pro-independence Chechen groups and thus of complicating his efforts to end what he has called his campaign against terrorism.

Indeed, immediately after this week's explosion, Shamil Beno, an official in the pro-Moscow Chechen interim administration, said very publicly that comments like those of Luzhkov threaten stability both "in Chechnya and in Moscow itself." Beno's words were echoed by other Chechens, including those opposed to Moscow's rule in that North Caucasian republic.

And yet a third reason for Putin's relatively cautious approach is that many Russians are not persuaded by official charges that the Chechens are responsible for this or earlier terrorist acts in the Russian Federation.

A poll released two weeks ago, for example, found that 50 percent of Russians did not believe government claims that the Chechens were behind the attacks on apartment buildings in Russian cities a year ago. And a survey of more than 5,000 Russians the day after the bombing found that slightly more than one-third of them did not think that the Chechens were to blame for the latest explosion.

These poll results suggest that many Russians are not prepared to accept charges like those made by Luzhkov without evidence. Many appear to take this position because they believe that the authorities must offer real evidence first while others do so because they fear, on the basis of past experience, that sweeping attacks on the Chechens could lead to attacks on other groups or become the justification for a new authoritarianism.

For all these reasons, Putin's reaction to the explosion in Moscow this week is likely to prove more politically prudent than the dramatic comments of Luzhkov, evidence of both the Russian president's pragmatism and the increasing unwillingness of Russian citizens to accept in the absence of clear evidence whatever the authorities say about Chechnya -- or indeed, about anything else.