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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 18:18 GMT
Moscow siege leaves dark memories
Moscow theatre siege
Russian special forces bring victims out

Few here in the Russian capital will ever forget the shocking images of the Moscow theatre siege - the masked Chechen gunmen, wielding Kalashnikovs and hand grenades.

Their female accomplices were almost more terrifying, covered from head to foot in black, their veils bearing Islamic slogans, their waists wrapped with belts full of explosives.

A woman member of the rebel group
Women hostage-takers were as frightening as the men

At the time, it seemed for many Russians as if their world had been turned upside down, and that nothing would ever be the same.

Some months later, such dramatic predictions have proved unfounded for all but those closely involved in the siege - the hostages and their families.

Yet the repercussions of this dramatic event are still making themselves felt at home and abroad.

Putin rides out storm

Perhaps the main prediction not to come true was the negative impact the siege was expected to have on President Vladimir Putin's popularity in Russia.

Many pundits - in the Russian press, in our Moscow studio and in the international media - warned that the death of so many hostages in the special forces' rescue operation, 129 people in all, would severely dent Mr Putin's standing at home.

In the event, it did nothing of the sort.

Shortly after the siege had ended and even today, the Russian president is enjoying record public approval ratings - 83% of Russians declare themselves satisfied with his rule.

President Putin
Chechnya is a source of strength and weakness for Putin

His decisive, even ruthless handling of the siege and his refusal to negotiate with the hostage-takers further shored up his reputation as a man of action.

Almost all 50 or so of the Chechen gunmen and women were killed - whether from the effects of the anaesthetic gas or from special forces' bullets - few Russians care.

Though no-one here would deny that the 129 accidental deaths of innocent hostages were a tragedy, most agree that the ending of the siege could have been much bloodier - not least if the Chechen hostage-takers had fulfilled their threat to blow up the entire theatre and their 750 captives.

The siege may also have helped President Putin's case with his allies in Britain and the US.

Western critics silenced

Since 11 September, Mr Putin has made clear that he regards Russian troops' presence in Chechnya as an integral part of the war against terror.

According to the Kremlin, Chechnya's pro-independence rebels have links to al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups.

That insistence has silenced most criticism from Western governments over the human rights abuses being committed by some Russian troops in Chechnya against civilians.

Chechen civilians and Russian soldier
Chechens live their lives under the gun

They include crimes such as the rape of Chechen women and young girls, extortion and the inexplicable "disappearances" of Chechen men of fighting age.

These days, both UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the US President George W Bush are reluctant to bring up such issues with Russia, now a confirmed ally in the war on terror.

Siege hardened attitudes

The running sore of the Chechen conflict is at once Mr Putin's greatest strength and his greatest weakness in terms of domestic policy.

Few Russians have forgotten the mysterious apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999, which the Kremlin and the secret services blamed on Chechen rebels.

The bombings gave Russia the excuse to send its troops back into Chechnya for the second time in a decade, while Mr Putin's promise to be tough on Chechen rebels helped win him the 2000 election as president.

Yet the continuing loss Russian soldiers' lives in the rebel republic - thousands over the past few years - had made many Russians sceptical as to whether Mr Putin's "get tough" policy was succeeding.

According to the pollsters, the siege reversed that trend.

Six months ago, polling agency VZIOM found that two-thirds of Russians believed the problem of Chechnya could only be resolved by peace negotiations.

After the siege, that figure fell to just 43%, while another 48% now believe continuing the war is the only option.

Black humour

If the siege changed minds in some ways, it also confirmed several long-held beliefs among Muscovites - for example that their security forces and police forces are not the most alert or reliable.

Initially, there was a widespread sense of shock that 50 armed rebels could simply stroll into a Moscow theatre unnoticed and unchallenged in a city full of police cars and men in uniform.

Moscow police
The Moscow police check ID documents

Russian police are known for constantly checking the documents of foreigners and darker-skinned residents and their right to live or work here.

But by the time the siege ended, Muscovites were back on form with their black humour.

One comedian joked that he wouldn't be surprised if the Moscow police had checked the Chechens' documents, taken a $100 bribe to pronounce them valid and then offered to escort the gunmen to the theatre.

That may be grossly unfair, but it certainly reflected a view held by many in the capital.

So far, few heads have rolled on the official front.

However, the Russian Government did try to bring in a new bill aimed at curbing the media, especially TV and radio - whom the Kremlin deemed to have over-stepped the mark by broadcasting the hostage-takers' demands and details of the special forces operation.

In the end, the Russian media received a tongue-lashing, and was told not to do it again.

Living with fear

Of course, the most bitter impact of the siege has been felt by those most closely involved in it - the Russian hostages and their families.

But Chechen civilians, whether in Moscow or in Chechnya itself, have also suffered.

Most simply want peace.

They are fed up with war, fed up with living in fear, tired of the presence of Russian soldiers and equally fed up with the rebels.

Yet in Moscow and many other Russian cities, they are now scrutinised and monitored more closely than ever, some even thrown out of their homes by landlords who fear they could be harbouring the next Chechen rebel group planning an attack.

Russian mourner
A woman mourns those who died when the siege ended

And now there is little hope that the Kremlin will feel peace talks necessary or even advisable.

For the hostages themselves, their friends and their families, life will never be the same again.

While the rest of Russia tries to draw the lessons to be learned from the siege, more than 100 families will be spending this Christmas learning to live without a son or a daughter, or a husband or wife.

Other survivors are still recovering from the trauma of their ordeal.

And for ordinary Muscovites today, there is definitely a sense of looking around more carefully, a slight feeling of uneasiness when in a crowded public place - a scar on the city's psyche that will take some time to heal.

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See also:

03 Dec 02 | Europe
02 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
26 Oct 02 | Europe
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