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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Another Explosive August

We are once again in the month of August. And again another explosion -- this time on a Moscow-St. Petersburg train. It seems to me that there is more to this incident than meets the eye because a terrorist act has taken place at such an important moment for the country -- on the eve of a presidential election.

And the central figure in all of this drama is President Vladimir Putin. He will be the main figure in the upcoming presidential election even if he is not a candidate, because whomever he names as his successor will probably come out the winner.

The first time a bombing interrupted the election campaign process was on Aug. 31, 1999. Just 22 hours after then-President Boris Yeltsin announced that he was appointing then-Federal Security Service director Vladimir Putin as the new prime minister and that he would like to see Putin succeed him as head of state, a homemade bomb exploded in an underground shopping strip on Manezh Square, which is located adjacent to the Kremlin. One person was killed and 40 wounded.

On Sept. 4, 1999, a bomb exploded at an apartment building in the Dagestani city of Buinaksk. Then two more explosions leveled Moscow apartment buildings: the first on Guryanova Ulitsa on Sept. 9, and the second on Kashirskoye Shosse on Sept. 13. Three days later, on Sept. 16, a bomb exploded at an apartment building in Volgodonsk.

In each case, terrorists packed explosives in either the building's basement or in a truck parked close by. They then set the bomb's timer to go off in either the evening or early morning, when most people would be home. The number of dead and wounded ran into the hundreds. Chechen militants were named the main suspects.

In his sensational book titled "The FSB Blows Up Russia," former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko said the explosions had been organized by the FSB to stir up support for a new war in Chechnya -- and for Putin personally as the self-appointed leader of the war effort. Need I remind the reader that Litvinenko was murdered last year in London?

In March 2000, long before Litvinenko's book was published, the NTV television station, which was privately owned at the time, aired an investigative report on the whole murky affair of the bombings in the Moscow apartment buildings. On Sept. 23 of that year, the Interior Ministry announced that it had just prevented the bombing of another apartment building in Ryazan. Late in the evening of Sept. 22, residents noticed suspicious-looking people unloading something from a car and called the police, who discovered sacks and an armed detonator in the basement.

But a full day later, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev caused a sensation when he explained that the whole affair had actually been an anti-terrorism training exercise -- that the sacks were not filled with explosives, but with sugar, and that the detonator was really a fake.

There were so many strange incongruities in Patrushev's version that people began to grumble among themselves and contemplate what could have happened if the police hadn't discovered the explosives in the building's basement in time. Six months after this incident, NTV aired a program in which eyewitnesses to the Ryazan incident expressed all of their doubts as to the "Ryazan sugar" version of events without blaming anyone specifically.

I was the general director of NTV at that time, so I know first-hand that the day after the program aired, one of the television company's shareholders received a phone call from a high-ranking government official responsible for working with the media. This official had a more or less positive attitude toward NTV, although he had often warned us that reporters should exercise restraint, and that nothing good would come of being overly aggressive in reporting events that the Kremlin considered sensitive. "Everything you've aired up until now is nothing compared with what you reported on yesterday's program," he said, and then added a dire prediction: "You will not be forgiven for that."

Soon after Putin was elected president in March 2000, the FSB and the Prosecutor General's Office organized a wide-scale attack against NTV. Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV's owner at the time, was arrested on trumped-up charges and jailed for three days in Moscow's Butyrskaya prison. He was released only after he agreed to sell all his business holdings. Gusinsky left the country soon after that. Nine months later, NTV was taken over by Gazprom, which, for all intents and purposes, means the Kremlin. NTV reporters who were critical of the new Kremlin administration were forced out of their jobs.

Four years later, in 2004, bombs went off again in Russia. First, 89 people died after Chechen suicide bombers blew up two passenger planes in mid-air after they took off from a Moscow airport. Then, a powerful explosion went off next to the Rizhsky market.

On Sept. 1, 2004, terrorists seized a school in Beslan. We all remember the efforts to negotiate the hostages' release and the bloodbath that resulted in 334 deaths, including 186 children. Using Beslan as a pretext, Putin cancelled direct elections of governors in favor of presidential appointments, a move that clearly strengthened his power.

And now Putin appears to be on the way out. The ruling elite has only recently realized that Putin wasn't joking last spring when he said during an annual Kremlin speech before the State Duma that next year a different president would be addressing them from that tribune.

The hopes of many among the elite who didn't want to see any changes take place in the country and who wanted to persuade Putin to amend the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term did not pan out.

It is clear, however, that Putin will continue to exert significant control over politics and foreign policy even after his term expires. Some sociologists assert that just one word from Putin would be enough for nearly half the electorate to vote for the candidate whom the president endorses.

And isn't it strange that at precisely this moment, with only two weeks remaining before the official start of Duma election campaigns, which will be followed by the presidential election, another mysterious terrorist attack takes place, igniting more fears of terrorism and pushing the country toward emergency measures.

These circumstances remind me of one more August -- August 1991. During Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's term, conservative, anti-reform members of his inner circle realized that he was serious about his intention to sign a new, revolutionary treaty with the Soviet republics that could have terrible consequences for their political careers. Gorbachev's opponents realized that if this treaty was signed, they could very well wake up in a entirely new country in which there would no longer be a Soviet Union and all of their high positions as prime minister, head of the KGB, defense minister, interior minister, chairman of the Supreme Soviet would be eliminated. They started to panic, and, out of fear, attempted a coup against Gorbachev.

Could a similar thing happen now, when many high-ranking officials are suddenly realizing that Putin is in fact leaving and that they could be left with nothing?

Even Putin's most ardent opponents are in a somewhat confused state of mind. By building his "power vertical," Putin has consolidated all power around himself. Moreover, he has become the single center of all criticism among his opponents; once Putin is gone, who will they be able to attack?

Things must be twice as bad for Putin's supporters. Putin's popularity is the main -- if not the only -- source of legitimacy for the current system of strong state governance.

One thing is clear. In the critical 2007 and 2008 election season, some of the most unpredictable events still await us.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.