The Putin bandwagon’s momentum appear unstoppable despite the fact that the acting president’s “practical work” was not going according to plan in at least one key area. Despite the frequent declarations by Russia’s generals that the military phase of the “antiterrorist” operation in Chechnya had been completed successfully, Russian forces in the southern part of the breakaway republic were meeting fierce resistance and experienced their heaviest losses to date. The first setback occurred when twenty OMON special Interior Ministry troops died in an ambush carried out by the rebels near Djohar, the Chechen capital. Subsequent incidents were even more devastating–particularly the loss of eighty-four paratroops during a pitched battle with rebels in southern Chechnya’s Argun Gorge.
The Federal Security Service’s capture of the notorious rebel field commander Salman Raduev helped the Kremlin undo some of the propaganda damage caused by these losses. Raduev was sent to Moscow and jailed in Lefortovo prison on charges related to his leading role in the 1995 terrorist attacks on the Dagestani towns of Budennovsk and Kizlyar, which killed dozens. Russia’s press ministry, meanwhile, announced that the Russian media were banned from broadcasting any comments by Chechen rebel leaders wanted on terrorism charges, including Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. At the same time, Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who remained under investigation for allegedly using a false passport and aiding the Chechen rebels, was denied permission to attend a session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly on alleged human rights violations by Russian troops in Chechnya. Babitsky has not been tried for or convicted of any crime.
Amidst all this came the release of “In the First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin,” a book put together by two Moscow journalists out of six interviews with the acting president. In an excerpt published in Kommersant newspaper, Putin charged that Babitsky was “working directly for the enemy … for the bandits.” But when Putin was asked about his former boss, Pavel Borodin, the one-time head of the Kremlin property department who is under investigation in Switzerland and Russia for allegedly taking multimillion-dollar kickbacks, the acting president retreated to his favorite campaign theme.
“I proceed from what the law says,” Putin declared. “There is a golden rule, a fundamental principle of any democratic system and it is called presumption of innocence.”