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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mayor, Putin React Best to Bombings




The wave of explosions that has taken hundreds of lives across Russia has also shaken up the political landscape. As the main players dust themselves off and inspect their bruises, they will need to act decisively to find solutions to the crisis if they hope to salvage their careers.


The string of bombings caught everyone off guard, and in the aftermath, those who want to save their political hides have had to scramble; so far, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seem to have scrambled the hardest - perhaps because they have the most to lose.


Both President Boris Yeltsin, who appears weak and inactive, and the generally popular Luzhkov, whose reputation for establishing law and order was dented - have been hurt by the attacks. But opposition leaders can't claim dividends, since none of them foresaw the events or offered real solutions to the trouble brewing in the North Caucasus, which the government blames for most of the violence.


"Nobody spoke up on time," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation.


But since the bombs, some have been speaking - and acting - more decisively than others.


Luzhkov has played his familiar role of khozyaistvennik, or someone who takes care of business. He dashed to the scenes of the tragedies Sept. 8 and 13, when apartment buildings in southern Moscow were blown up, and the city government quickly assisted survivors and resettled them into new apartments.


"Where was Boris Yeltsin? Nowhere. Putin was sitting for a long time in New Zealand. But Luzhkov was there with his people," Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, said.


Not even Sergei Kiriyenko, who says he will challenge Luzhkov in mayoral elections in December, showed up to comfort survivors or offer assistance.


After Monday's explosion, Luzhkov announced a "special regime" in the city, instructing his police force to boost its efforts guarding apartment buildings and searching for bombs. He also ordered a harsher registration regime for "guests," no doubt a popular move among the many Muscovites who are suspicious of Caucasians.


Putin, a political unknown until he was abruptly appointed to replace Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin in August, also seems to be doing well, despite a later start after rushing back from an Asian economic summit in New Zealand, where he was when Monday's explosion occurred. He won a nod of approval this week from both houses of parliament when they backed his government's plan for fighting terrorism and tightening up the border with Chechnya.


"Putin is gaining points," said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "He's the only premier who in such a situation has been able to find a common language with the Duma."


Putin, as former head of the Federal Security Service, has a natural leadership role in the bombing investigations, as well as in battling Islamic rebels in Dagestan. His political fortunes, therefore, depend on his success.


"He has to at least catch or destroy someone," Ryabov said.


As for Yeltsin, his popularity before the bombings could not have sunk much lower, but with his prime minister and the parliament seemingly on the same side, he must tread even more carefully. "There's no more chance for him to change prime ministers," Markov said.


Yeltsin was dealt another blow this week when The New York Times quoted Yegor Stroyev, speaker of the usually loyal upper house of parliament, as saying the president should step down.


"If Yeltsin left today, it would be better for the people and political parties," the newspaper quoted Stroyev as saying.


Stroyev said Thursday it was Yeltsin's right to decide whether to resign, but stopped short of a full denial, Reuters reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin said Yeltsin viewed the remarks as "a misunderstanding." The president did not elaborate, he said.


On Friday, an appeal to Yeltsin to quit was backed by 60 Federation Council members, a surprisingly large number, though not enough for it to be discussed in the session.