The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Crushing blow to Putin image

Moscow, Oct. 24 (Reuters): Chechen rebels holding hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theatre have dealt a blow to the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was catapulted to power by pledges to crush terrorists and stamp out lawlessness.

More than 12 hours after several dozen Chechen separatists seized the theatre, neither Putin nor key security ministers had offered any comment to a traumatised nation.

The audacious strike, four km from the Kremlin, underscored the ability of militants to ferry large quantities of explosives past security forces.

“I believe that this is the time to ask our authorities what they, basically, are doing to ensure that our people, all of us, feel relatively safe,” liberal member of parliament Sergei Ivanenko told Ekho Moskvy radio.

“The feeling that terrorists, criminals in general, get away unpunished is one of the most negative elements in our lives.”

Putin emerged from obscurity in 1999 as the Prime Minister of then-President Boris Yeltsin and won his political spurs by vowing to deal with those responsible for deadly apartment block bombings that occurred within weeks of his appointment. The culprits, he said, were Chechen separatists and he oversaw the dispatch of Russia’s security forces into Chechnya after a three-year absence to do away with them.

The allegations were never proved, but the campaign was wildly popular. Equally popular was his stated determination, after an easy victory in March 2000, to establish a “dictatorship of law” after excesses under Yeltsin. Russian troops swept through Chechnya, removing the elected separatist administration, and Putin declared military victory over the rebels in April 2000.

Losses from rebel raids have since been frequent but kept to an acceptable minimum for public opinion with a few exceptions. Putin’s backing for the US-led war on terrorism ensured that Western criticism of Russian army excesses was muted.

But the theatre hostage-taking has underscored an upsurge in violence and public insecurity throughout Russia, and cast more attention on the failure to establish in Chechnya long-lasting peace — and a political solution acceptable to all sides.

“This is a blow to Putin’s prestige and image in Russia because he came to power as a winner in the second Chechen war,” said Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

“But we’ve seen that the Chechen conflict has not been settled at all, not even close to that. This war is spreading across the whole of the north Caucasus, and I see this kind of a terrorist act as a final and defining touch in this situation.”

In the absence of ministerial comments, some politicians urged public opinion to stand behind Putin at a time of crisis.

Sergei Stepashin, Putin’s short-lived predecessor as Prime minister under Yeltsin, said scoring political points could produce tragedies like a botched attempt to end a hostage-taking at a hospital during the first 1994-96 Chechen war. “We have one political focal point, headed by Vladimir Putin, which has the information and knows what is to be done,” Stepashin, head of the audit chamber, told Interfax news agency.

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