Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 156

Russian officials and citizens alike yesterday were still trying to make sense of the August 8 explosion at Moscow’s Pushkin Square, apparently the work of terrorists. Reports immediately after the blast and into yesterday remained contradictory and many of them turned out to be inaccurate. Some Russian media yesterday prematurely reported a death toll of eight. In fact, seven were killed in the blast and more than ninety wounded. The death toll rose to eight today, when one of those critically wounded died in the hospital. As of this morning, fifty-five people, including four children, remained hospitalized. And while some officials, including Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and a deputy Federal Security Service director, reported yesterday that two men, a Chechen and an Avar from neighboring Dagestan, had been detained in the blast, officials later in the day were downplaying the arrests. Officials said that while the suspects were continuing to be interrogated, their role in the bombing had not been established. Other news agencies had reported yesterday that a third suspect in the bombing was arrested in Moscow Oblast with bomb making materials. That report also turned out to be unconfirmed (see yesterday’s Monitor). Russian law enforcement officials said yesterday that the manhunt for the bombing’s perpetrators was continuing (Russian agencies, August 9-10)

And while a number of leading officials and politicians, particularly Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, were openly claiming that Chechen rebels were behind the blast, President Vladimir Putin, in a nationally televised address, asked Russians not to jump to conclusions about a Chechen connection and not to “put a stamp on an entire nation,” given that “crime has no nationality nor confession.” Chechens living outside the republic in other parts of Russia have expressed fear that they could become the target of reprisals–not an unreasonable feeling, given the history of police singling out “persons of Caucasus nationality” for harassment, particularly after incidents like the October 1993 parliamentary rebellion and last year’s apartment building bombings. After Luzhkov’s comment that the blast had an obvious Chechen “trail,” Shamil Beno, the Moscow representative of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Russian-appointed leader of Chechnya’s provisional administration, warned Russian officials not to incite ethnic strife by speculating about an alleged Chechen connection to the blast. Beno said he planned to sue Luzhkov for defaming Chechens by claiming a Chechen link to the bombing. Yesterday, Kadyrov himself urged Russian officials not to speculate about Chechen involvement in the bombing (Russian agencies, Radio Liberty, August 9).

Despite the fact that investigators continued yesterday to say they had not ruled out other motives behind the Pushkin Square blast, including a settling of scores between criminal gangs or a business dispute, many observers are nonetheless inclined to believe the bombing was carried out by Chechen radicals. Talgat Tadzhutdin, one of Russia’s leading muftis, was quoted as saying he was “inclined” to suspect that Wahhabis–adherents of a fundamentalist strain of Islam who have become active in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus–were behind the blast (Moscow Times, August 10). Likewise, the newspaper Segodnya, while criticizing security officials for rushing to pin the bombing on the two suspects arrested yesterday, wrote today that the “Wahhabi version” was “unquestionably” the “most likely” explanation for the Pushkin Square bombing. Segodnya’s view in this regard is significant, given that it is part of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, which among Russian media has been the most critical of the military operation in Chechnya. The paper today also ran an article sharply criticizing the special services, Putin’s alma mater, for their inability to prevent the Pushkin Square bombing despite the nearly year-long antiterrorist operation in Chechnya. “There is only one conclusion: ‘the strong hand’, which the state has put all of its power behind, seems to be preoccupied with other things,” wrote Segodnya. “Rather than prognosticating short-term and long-term developments in the North Caucasus, the best Kremlin minds and ‘strong hands’ are thrown at redistributing property, the fight with the governors, [with the] oligarchs, [with the] the mass media, and at revitalizing the over-bureaucratized vertical. The special services can’t be bothered with the Caucasus: they are racing against one another to create affiliates in the seven federal districts” (Segodnya, August 10). Gusinsky was until recently under criminal investigation for allegedly embezzling state funds, and he and other Media-Most officials have accused the Kremlin of political persecution.

In a poll taken by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) at the end of July–that is, before the Pushkin Square bombing–56 percent of the respondents answered in the negative when asked if the Russian special services could be relied on to protect the population from terrorist acts. Thirty-seven percent of those polled said they believed that the special services could protect them. Seven percent said the question was hard to answer (Russian agencies, August 9).