Russian violence hints of a Yugoslavian fate

Terrorism: Apartment building bombings have killed hundreds and spread fear and acts of revenge.

September 18, 1999

APARTMENT bombings that have killed about 300 people are unleashing worrisome outbursts of hatred in Russia. The country's top officials are fanning hysteria and crying for revenge.

"We must stamp out this vermin," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says of Chechen and Dagestani Islamic separatists whom he accuses of the bombings. "We should not whimper and whine, we all need to act decisively, determinedly and energetically."

In another chilling harangue, the prime minister called for ethnic Russians to take revenge. Already, he said, "we were being turned into second-class citizens in our own homes."

Amid reports that authorities discovered 19 tons of explosives in sugar sacks transported from a Southern Russian mill, citizens are panicking. Militia officers and vigilantes are harassing minorities on the streets and in their homes, claiming to ensure public safety. In at least one town, businesses belonging to Islamic minorities have been firebombed.

These expressions of hate, if they escalate, could prove disastrous for Russia. A multinational state of different languages, cultures, religions and ethnic groups must be based on mutual tolerance or it can become an uncontrollable tinderbox.

Arbitrary scapegoating has often been part of Russian history. In czarist times, Jews were blamed for adversities and subjected to pogroms. Under Stalin, hunts for saboteurs cost millions of lives. "Alien" ethnic groups, including Crimean Tatars and Chechens, were collectively punished.

President Boris N. Yeltsin should move decisively to curb passions caused by the recent bombings -- or Russia could end up as another Yugoslavia, where neighbors turned against one another, causing the country's disintegration.

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