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Putin silence underlines chilling trend

Moscow, Sept. 4: Several hours after bloody, half-naked and terrified children and teachers fled Middle School No 1 yesterday afternoon amid explosions and automatic weapons fire, NTV television correspondent Ruslan Gusarov told viewers he had heard law enforcement authorities saying on their walkie-talkies that there were a significant number of dead and wounded victims inside.

The anchorwoman in Moscow admonished him. “We have to stop,” she said. “We cannot broadcast this information.”

The warning was a glimpse into the reality hanging over the hostage crisis in the town of Beslan in southern Russia. At a moment of great distress, there was near-total silence from President Vladimir Putin and the rest of Russia’s political leaders. Information about victims trickled out slowly. Secrecy and obfuscation, tools of the authoritarian past, cast a chilling shadow over television news broadcasts.

All three major television networks are now state-controlled, but the restrictions they face are offset somewhat by Russia’s newspapers and lively websites, which offered fast-breaking and firsthand accounts from the scene.

Soon after explosions and gunfire rocked the school, the main television channel shifted away from the scenes of mayhem and broadcast a soap opera about World War II spies. Twelve hours after commandos stormed the school, Putin had not said a word in public, reflecting a penchant for opacity that has characterised his response to controversy since the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine four years ago. Back then, he went jet-skiing on the Black Sea while navy families waited anxiously for word about the doomed sailors.

“People do not see that they have politicians who can save them, guarantee their security and stability and who can suggest any kind of solution,” said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research organisation. “They would love to see a tough, harsh, resolute President, but they have not seen one. Russia has lost its President in these days.”

“Politics is really dead, but in a way that is dangerous for Putin. This is the moment of truth for the country. The Duma is afraid to convene an emergency meeting,” she said, referring to the lower house of parliament.

“Nobody has made a comment. The President is hiding. The government is hiding. This is the end of politics, when no one wants to take responsibility.” Sergei Markov, a political analyst who has worked for the Kremlin, said the attack took Russia’s intelligence agencies by surprise. Putin spent his career in the KGB and later was director of its domestic successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, before rising to power.

But Markov said that criticism would be directed primarily at the security services rather than at Putin. “The Russian intelligence services have not been prepared for a terrorist attack,” he said.

As President, Putin has often promoted his image as a tough guy, discreet and stone-faced. In his attempts to corral the influential Russian tycoons, he has often let subordinates adopt pressure tactics, while portraying himself as distant, cool and unconcerned. According to those who have dealt with him, he takes a behind-the-scenes role in the manoeuvring.

Since he became Boris Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Putin has also sought to stamp out challenges to his power, with crackdowns on independent television, the creation of a pliant parliament and the imposition of restrictions on regional governors.

Journalists, academics and politicians have described a growing atmosphere of anxiety. Shevtsova said Russians were on edge in public spaces. The attack came after a bombing at a Moscow subway and the apparent downing of two airliners. “It’s like a Hitchcock movie.,” she said.

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