01:10 GMT +308 December 2016
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    TERRORISM OVERSHADOWS THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

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    Vladimir Simonov, RIA Novosti political observer

    It looks like Russia, and not the USA, is becoming the main target for terrorism today. After September 11, 2001, US territory has been all but untouched by terrorist attacks, while they have been committed in the Russian towns and cities of Yessentuki, Kislovodsk, Makhachkala and Moscow. Explosive-laden vehicles have been detonated and train carriages blown up.

    Last Friday's tragedy in the Moscow underground is different from all the previous terrorist attacks. In the outrage committed in the heart of the Russian capital and the dreadful scene in the underground tunnel, one could not only sense the destruction of human lives, but also Russia's domestic policy.

    Only days before the attack, the unofficial campaign for the March 14 presidential elections got underway with several candidates, including Vladimir Putin, receiving their official registration as candidates.

    It was a development to which the political elite of the Chechen militant underground made a reflex action: it reminded people about its existence with a new terrorist attack. Meanwhile, it came coated with "peace initiatives" designed not so much as to ensure Chechnya's welfare than to win favour in certain quarters in the West.

    Let us recall June 11, 1996, when four people were killed in an explosion near Moscow's Tulskaya metro station. It is hard to believe that the terrorists were not aiming their strike at the presidential elections that were due to be held in five days' time.

    Terrorist acts were also perpetrated just before the recent State Duma election campaign.

    Moreover, it would appear that last Friday's crime in the metro was synchronised not only on the Russian, but also on the international scale. In late January, Akhmed Zakayev unexpectedly appeared in Germany. He is the emissary of Chechen ex-President Aslan Maskhadov, who Russia has put on the international wanted list for forming terrorist groups and complicity in murders. Gerd Weiskirchen, a member of the Social-Democratic faction in the Bundestag, evidently decided that no one better than a militant with a long record could enlighten the audience at a public discussion "Chechnya - Possibilities for the Peace Process."

    It turned out after literally a couple of days that these possibilities amounted to Maskhadov, Zakayev and their foreign partners taking Chechnya from Russian sovereignty to be put under the control of some kind of provisional UN administration. Indeed, 145 members of the European Parliament signed a motion in support for this project from Maskhadov.

    This idea played the role of a camouflaged peaceful casing around 5 kg of TNT that created hell in the Moscow underground. Hardly had the body parts been cleared from the tracks on Friday, when Maskhadov proposed to the Russian authorities on Saturday that talks should start "immediately" and "without preliminary conditions."

    However, it is difficult to view the explosion that killed 39 people and injured another 124 as anything other than a preliminary condition.

    Terrorism clearly wants to take part in Russia's election campaign, including on the side of President Putin's most aggressive opponents.

    But neither the Chechen separatists abroad, led by Aslan Maskhadov, nor his involuntary companions from right-wing Russian radicals are happy in the knowledge that life in Chechnya has stabilised and improved in the past year. The results of last March's constitutional referendum in the republic and the presidential elections held in October, which were in Moscow's favour, do not suit those forces.

    The Chechen people are becoming increasingly indifferent to Maskhadov and his men. Meanwhile, stubborn Russian opponents to Vladimir Putin are disillusioned to see that their election trump card - criticism of the authorities for their position on Chechnya - is losing significance.

    It seems like the explosion in the Moscow metro has helped many sensible Russians see the truth. They have noticed the unintentional but nevertheless logical connection between suicide bombers and the opponents to the authorities at home, opponents who involuntarily lend political meaning to this bloody madness. Terrorism becomes a political instrument in the presidential campaign.

    The Kremlin understands that this danger may increase in the run-up to March 14. There will be a growing temptation to damage the President's authority through explosions, to try to undermine his popularity, to stir up opposition sentiments and destabilise the situation in the country before the elections. Vladimir Putin, in a recent public statement did not rule out that, "the terrorist attacks and calls from abroad to hold talks with Aslan Maskhadov will be used during the presidential elections in Russia also as a means of pressure on the present head of state."

    Putin's great ability to deal with outside pressure is well known. This is all the more true, when one considers that the ability to apply this pressure is clearly beyond Maskhadov and his entourage, whom the President directly associates with the terrorist attacks.

    The attempts to make TNT a factor of the domestic political process leave one thinking that the most effective way to combat terrorism in Russia is not the US model of placing the population under total surveillance, which is closely reminiscent of the USSR of the 1930s to the 1950s. Indeed, neither is the introduction of a state of emergency desirable, as Russia cannot afford it, nor even a return of death penalty, as suicide bombers will only welcome it.

    An effective means could be the nation rallying together in the face of terrorism, just like the Soviet Union did after the Nazis attacked. Some indications that this will happen have already emerged. Hundreds of people have given blood for the tragedy's victims. Muscovites now communicate closer with their neighbours whom they did not notice for years and have joined voluntary patrol groups. The country is beginning to realise that it is one family in danger.

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