Presidential politics by other means

A pair of explosions at the entrance to a crowded open air rock concert in Moscow Saturday afternoon claimed 15 innocent lives and injured dozens of others. The perpetrators of the attack were two Chechen female suicide bombers, but no group has yet claimed responsibility.

The casualties from the attack could have been much worse, but suspicious guards insisted on searching the first woman at the checkpoint. Unable to get inside the concert, she set off her detonator, but only part of her explosives went off, mortally wounding herself and injuring three other people. The second suicide bomber, however, detonated her charge 10 minutes later amidst a crowd of youths redirected by police away from the scene of the initial explosion.

For the second time in less than a year Chechen separatists targeted Moscow’s entertainment scene with tragic results. Still fresh in Muscovites’ minds is the bitter memory of the Nord-Ost crisis wherein 129 hostages and 41 militants were killed when Russian special forces stormed a theatre using a powerful narcotic gas.

This latest attack resembles the October hostage crisis in that it was well-planned by its unknown masterminds but with a botched execution. Had it been successful the death toll could have been much larger, with likely casualties from a panicked stampede. Security at the concert prevented this scenario by swiftly blocking all cell phone communications, so that most of the concert-goers were unaware of what had transpired.

A Chechen passport and a plane ticket from Tbilisi to Moscow were found on the body of the suicide bomber whose charge misfired. This discovery is likely to aggravate relations with Georgia, a southern neighbour which has vehemently denied repeated Russian allegations that it is sheltering Chechen fighters in its mountainous border region.

The former head of the Russian Parliament Ruslan Hasbulatov — himself a native of Chechnya — drew harsh criticism from the Kremlin when he laid the blame for the Moscow tragedy squarely on the “merciless campaign aimed at extermination of the Chechen nation”.

Last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced his decision to set 5 October as the date for a presidential election in Chechnya. In the immediate aftermath of the Saturday blasts Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov acknowledged this as the likely proximate cause for the attack, while according to Hasbulatov’s blunt analysis, “the latest terror attack is the result of an attempt of installing just another puppet regime loyal to the invaders.”

Ahmad Kadyrov, de facto ruler of the war- torn and factionalised republic had hailed Putin as courageous for preparing elections in Chechnya. With Russian backing, Kadyrov is likely the only candidate who will realistically be allowed to win. However, there is now sharp disagreement within the Russian leadership as to whether Kadyrov is the Kremlin’s optimal candidate as the new head of the Chechen Republic. His ongoing unpopularity in the breakaway republic may mean that “elected” rule by Kadyrov, instead of pacifying the Chechen population, may trigger more attacks against his Russian puppet-masters.

President Putin has made significant gains during his recent encounters with top European leaders with regard to convincing them that the Chechen resistance is a major link in the international network of Islamic terrorism. This diplomatic success may have contributed to the escalation of violence in the republic which once again struck into the heart of Moscow itself.

Last year, about 4,500 Russian soldiers were killed in Chechnya according to official estimates, while independent organisations put the number closer to 11,000. Although daily casualties have continued to mount in 2003, Putin has insisted that the war with separatist guerrillas is won.

After Saturday’s bombing, Putin spoke of a rapid response to terror in unequivocal terms: “They must be dug up out of their basements and caves, where they are still hiding, and be destroyed,” he said.

An important component of Putin’s easy victory in the 2000 elections was his hard-line stance towards Chechen secessionism. After taking over as acting president in 1999 with the resignation of an ailing Boris Yeltsin, Putin launched an offensive that managed to push the rebels to the mountainous regions in southern Chechnya. The elected president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, was forced into hiding and is now a leader of one of many rebel factions.

Putin’s bid at a second term in the Kremlin may depend on a more decisive victory or lasting resolution of the Chechen conflict. While continuing his antagonistic approach to secessionism, Putin is also betting on Ahmad Kadyrov’s ability to convince the Chechen public of his legitimacy. With Kadyrov massively unpopular in Chechnya and rightly viewed as a puppet of the Kremlin, this will be a hard sell.