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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Analysis: Putin's permanent problem
By Thomas de Waal

For more than four years now the word President Vladimir Putin has used about the situation in Chechnya is "normalisation".

He has reassured the Russian public that the conflict is virtually over, that his uncompromising tactic of no negotiations with pro-independence Chechen leaders has worked and that he needs no international presence in the troubled republic.

Moscow theatre siege
More than 100 hostages died in the Moscow theatre siege in 2002

Although the Russian president maintains that this is an international problem - that Chechnya has become a front in the worldwide "war on terror" - he constantly rejects calls for a greater role for the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe there.

That claim was badly damaged by the seizure of the theatre by Chechen gunmen in Moscow in October 2002, when more than 129 theatregoers who had come to watch the Nord-Ost musical died.

It was further hurt by the assassination earlier this year of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov.

Now "normalisation" lies in pieces as Mr Putin is facing the worst week of terrorism in his entire presidency. It looks increasingly likely that the destruction of two passenger planes over southern Russia last week was the work of Chechen suicide bombers.

Another bomber outside a Moscow metro station killed more than 10 people on Tuesday night. And on Wednesday, Russia again faced a mass hostage seizure as bad as the 2002 Nord-Ost siege, with the sickening complication that now the victims are mainly children.

New breed

The scale of the problem Russia faces is truly vast. The whole of Russia is a potential target and the hostage-takers appear to be a new breed of Islamist Chechens, who have literally nothing to lose.

These young men and women fighting a Jihad have now eclipsed the more moderate pro-independence fighters who formed the core of the Chechen rebel movement in the 1990s.

Although Mr Putin has manifestly failed in his promise to solve the problem of Chechnya, he keeps his public support
One thing has not changed since then: corruption in Russia is so rife that Chechen fighters can make their way through any number of heavily armed checkpoints simply by paying bribes.

One Chechen driver recently estimated that the price of ferrying a bomb through a Russian army checkpoint was 500 roubles (9 or $17).

That means that to defeat this problem the Russian president needs completely to overhaul his security services.

But he also needs to mobilise the support of the mass of the ordinary Chechen population, who reject extreme Islam and are fed up with a decade's worth of violence.

Popular opinion

The trouble is that Moscow has done everything to exclude and alienate these Chechens.
Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov
Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov was killed earlier this year

In last Sunday's election in Chechnya the Kremlin virtually appointed its candidate Alu Alkhanov to lead the republic and barred more popular candidates from the poll.

The paradox of the situation is that, although Mr Putin has manifestly failed in his promise to solve the problem of Chechnya, he keeps his public support.

The Russian media rarely broadcasts an alternative point of view and anti-Chechen feelings are running higher than ever. This has now become Mr Putin's permanent problem and he will be the one who has to deal with it.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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