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Thursday, 30 September, 1999, 14:14 GMT
Russia, bombs and elections
Bomb damage
Russians want action after the devastating bomb blasts in their cities
By Russian affairs analyst Malcolm Haslett

Russia is a nervous place, what with the recent bombings of civilian apartment blocks and now the threat of a new war in Chechnya.

Battle for the Caucasus
The situation demands that politicians take a position on these issues, especially since there is a parliamentary election in December.

But it could cause a few problems for some of the political groups fighting the election.

Russia's shocked citizens are demanding, understandably, action to safeguard their lives and property after the recent devastating bombs which killed almost 300 people.

But what action? Prime Minister Putin is saying he is against a ground war and will not make the same mistakes the government made the last time, in 1994, when the army was sent in to try to crush Chechen separatism.

But his Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, has not ruled out a ground invasion, and he must nevertheless feel tempted to try, perhaps, a brief military incursion in an attempt to show the Russian public he means business.

Conflicting emotions

But even a small incursion would be a huge political gamble. There is an enormous anger felt by ordinary Russians over the apartment bombings and a lot of it is directed - rightly or wrongly - against Chechen separatists.

But most Russians will be swept by conflicting emotions, caught between the temptation to "hit back" at people they think are their tormentors, the memories of the losses on the Russian side and the knowledge that "hitting back" would almost certainly invite further acts of violence.

Russia's politicians now have the difficult task of trying to analyse which of these conflicting emotions is uppermost in the minds of most Russians.

Warning of war

One politician who says he is against ground operations is Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the pro-market Yabloko faction. A ground incursion, he says, would be too dangerous.

Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov
Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov: In belligerent mood
A similar position is taken by ex-premier Yevgeny Primakov, the man shown by opinion polls still to be Russia's most popular politician. Any ground incursion would lead to war, he warns.

There was an interesting contrast, however, between Mr Primakov's comments and those of his political ally, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. They are numbers One and Two, respectively, on the list of candidates of the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) bloc, expected to do well in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Mayor Luzhkov, who has drawn some criticism from liberal newspapers for his heavy-handed re-registration of Moscow's large non-Russian population, has been in belligerent mood.

He has just extended special security measures in the capital. And though he claims to agree with his running-mate Yevgeny Primakov that a ground operation would be a mistake, he did so in such a way as to throw doubt on whether he really meant it.

He was reported as saying that he opposed "any armed action not aimed at exterminating the guerrillas in Dagestan and Chechnya."

That did not seem to fit very well with Mr Primakov's comments, or with the line taken by a third OVR leader, President Shaimiev of Tatarstan, who initially told the federal authorities he did not want any young Tatars to be conscripted to fight in the south.

There is some doubt, generally, about the cohesion of the new OVR bloc. Its Number Three candidate, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev of Petersburg, has clearly annoyed Mr Luzhkov by suggesting that the government might be moved from Moscow to his city, the old Tsarist capital.

Public opinion volatile

And what is the position of Russia's newest political leader, Minister of Emergencies Sergey Shoigu? He is one of the few politicians to have actually gained from the recent tensions, because his ministry was widely seen as dealing effectively and promptly with the emergencies caused by the apartment block bombings.

He was decorated by President Yeltsin, and he has just accepted an invitation to head a new formation calling itself 'Unity'.

There is speculation that this is a Kremlin-backed operation - Boris Yeltsin's latest attempt to find a politician untained by corruption and scandal to continue his political heritage.

Mr Shoigu will clearly have to think through his position carefully. He is popular at the moment, but Russian public opinion is extremely volatile - and today's hero is often tomorrow's villain.
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17 Sep 99 | Europe
The blasts which shook Russia
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