Cynicism, anxiety grip Moscow after bombings of apartments

Police sweep capital as terrorism suspicion shifts to politicians

September 15, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- A deep sense of suspicion settled over this city yesterday as Russians tried to grasp what could be behind the apartment-house bombings that have killed hundreds and thrown the whole country into a state of anxiety.

Police searched traffic coming into Moscow and said they had checked nearly all the city's 30,000 residential buildings. Ordinary Muscovites made hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of calls to a police hot line to report suspicious people and packages.

Some of the country's leaders have blamed an international conspiracy of Islamic extremists. But in the dark mood that has afflicted Russia, an even darker suspicion gained some currency: that the Kremlin itself, or its allies, might have had a hand in the bombings.

The Moscow prosecutor's office announced that "several" people connected to the bombings on Thursday and Monday had been detained, but provided no details.

Russian police said yesterday that they had prevented a third blast by seizing as much as 2 tons of explosives in another apartment building, according to wire reports.

The explosives and a 70-yard fuse were discovered in a 12-story residential building with 260 apartments in southeastern Moscow, police said.

A highly publicized security crackdown in Moscow meant 12-hour shifts and canceled leaves for the city's 70,000 police officers, who searched traffic coming into the capital and rounded up hundreds of people from the Caucasus who were found without proper papers. Busloads of police swept through the city's markets late in the day.

The harassment of Caucasians is typical here, but the scale of yesterday's actions was nearly unprecedented. The police may be bolstered by army patrols along the city's streets, which will either reassure people or, more likely, remind them of their anxieties.

But in the absence of much information about the bombings, and in the murky context of Russia's on-again, off-again war in Dagestan against Islamic rebels, the terrorist acts in Moscow have been put to use by politicians in whatever way they can.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin went to the Duma yesterday and talked about the seriousness of the bombings and the war in Dagestan. "I think it is, in fact, a struggle for the integrity of the Russian Federation," he said.

Russia's enemies, he declared, were "bandits, marauders, aggressors, who have no home, no kin, no nationality, no religion," and he warned against "hasty and wholesale accusations and repressions, especially detentions or arrests on ethnic grounds."

This was a slap at Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who ordered the police sweeps. The city's police have never been tender toward Caucasians. Takhir Mamedov, an Azerbaijani guard at the Butyrsky farmers' market, described shakedowns and punishment cells as a regular fact of life. But even while harassing men and women on the street, city authorities have rarely tried to interfere with the livelihood of Chechens and others who control the markets.

Money from the markets, according to some reports, flows into various city projects, but some also has gone to support the rebels in Chechnya and Dagestan. In light of this, Luzhkov's show of force by the police resembles Russia's conduct in Dagestan: All for appearance, with little substance.

Luzhkov is leading an anti-Kremlin coalition in the upcoming elections, and publications friendly to him have battered away at the administration of President Boris N. Yeltsin. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published yesterday what it said were transcripts of intercepted phone calls that appeared to show Yeltsin's friend, the tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, discussing plans for the rebel uprising in Dagestan with Chechen leaders last summer.

The magazine Profil suggested that the Kremlin had been in on the planning for the Dagestan revolt and in league with Islamic terrorists who carried out the first of the apartment house bombings. The rationale, Profil said, was to throw Russian politics off balance, with an eye toward canceling parliamentary elections in December, and to boost the standing of Putin, the new prime minister, by showing that he could handle a crisis.

Some Communist politicians have said they suspect the same thing, and their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, accused the Yeltsin administration yesterday of planning to use the bombings as the pretext for a state of emergency. Putin specifically denied that in the Duma later in the day.

It is a measure of the cynicism in Russia today that people could believe their leaders were accessories to a terrorist campaign in the heart of Moscow -- as many apparently do, judging from casual conversations with ordinary Muscovites. Even some of Luzkhov's antagonists in the markets agree. "It's all politics, it's not terrorism," said Mamedov. "Anyone could have done this for the right amount of money."

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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