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Hostage crisis refuels Chechnya debate

The theater standoff may move Russia closer to a US style policy on terrorism.

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Three years of political stability under President Vladimir Putin crumbled abruptly this week after nearly 50 heavily armed Chechen rebels seized a central Moscow theater and threatened to blow it up – with as many as 700 hostages inside – unless Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya within a week.

For Russians, Wednesday night's attack has brought the faraway and largely forgotten Chechnya conflict crashing onto center stage. The long, brutal counterinsurgency operation in Chechnya has been sparsely covered by Russian media.

But all major Russian TV stations have been covering the Moscow hostage drama around the clock, airing constant interviews and discussions with experts, and hence providing the most sweeping public debate about the war in almost three years.

Most dramatically, real-time cellphone calls from hostages inside the theater have played on Russian radio and TV, imparting a sharp and tragic edge to the discussion.

"The Chechens are starting to get impatient with us. They say, 'Your government is doing nothing to help you,' " sobbed hostage Maria Shkolnikova, who called the independent Echo Moskvi radio station on her cellphone yesterday afternoon. "We want to know: Where is Putin? Has he spoken? If our troops are not withdrawn from Chechnya soon, they say they'll start shooting us."

However the drama plays out, experts fear the long-term political consequences will be extremely negative for Russia's fragile democracy and political stability. "I think our Chechen policy will be greatly toughened after this," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former Kremlin aide and chair of the independent Reforma think tank in Moscow. "After all, were the Americans interested in appeasing Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11?"

For Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer who came to power pledging to get tough on Chechen terrorism after a series of devastating apartment bombs killed 300 Russians in the Autumn of 1999, the attack is a potentially disastrous political challenge.

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