Three years of political stability under President Vladimir Putin
crumbled abruptly this week after nearly 50 heavily armed Chechen
rebels seized a central Moscow theater and threatened to blow it up -
with as many as 700 hostages inside - unless Russian troops withdraw
from Chechnya within a week.
For Russians, Wednesday night's attack has brought the faraway
and largely forgotten Chechnya conflict crashing onto center stage.
The long, brutal counterinsurgency operation in Chechnya has been
sparsely covered by Russian media.
But all major Russian TV stations have been covering the Moscow
hostage drama around the clock, airing constant interviews and
discussions with experts, and hence providing the most sweeping
public debate about the war in almost three years.
Most dramatically, real-time cellphone calls from hostages inside
the theater have played on Russian radio and TV, imparting a sharp
and tragic edge to the discussion.
"The Chechens are starting to get impatient with us. They say,
'Your government is doing nothing to help you,' " sobbed hostage
Maria Shkolnikova, who called the independent Echo Moskvi radio
station on her cellphone yesterday afternoon. "We want to know:
Where is Putin? Has he spoken? If our troops are not withdrawn from
Chechnya soon, they say they'll start shooting us."
However the drama plays out, experts fear the long-term political
consequences will be extremely negative for Russia's fragile
democracy and political stability. "I think our Chechen policy will
be greatly toughened after this," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former
Kremlin aide and chair of the independent Reforma think tank in
Moscow. "After all, were the Americans interested in appeasing Osama
bin Laden after Sept. 11?"
For Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer who came to power pledging to
get tough on Chechen terrorism after a series of devastating
apartment bombs killed 300 Russians in the Autumn of 1999, the
attack is a potentially disastrous political challenge.
Three years ago he launched Russia's second war to quell Chechen
separatism, and handily won subsequent presidential elections on the
strength of the Russian military victories that followed. But the
conflict has dragged on, killing an average of three federal
soldiers daily in the embattled republic.
Polls show Russians growing exhausted with the war. "This
terrible event in Moscow shows that we have not succeeded in
containing the war within the borders of Chechnya," says Sergei
Karaganov, head of the pro-Kremlin Council on Foreign and Defense
Policy in Moscow. "This war has been very closely associated with
Putin's name, and he must be seen bringing this situation quickly
under control or he may lose badly from it."
The crisis began late Wednesday when the highly organized
detachment of Chechen rebels seized the Palace of Culture on
Melnikova Street in southeast Moscow, where the popular patriotic
musical "Nord-Ost" was being staged. The attackers, wearing
balaclavas and thick wads of explosive around their waists, fired
shots and ordered everyone to be seated. The attackers released
about 150 children, pregnant women, and Muslims, before planting
booby traps around the 1,000-seat theater's doors and windows. …