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Russia's Crashes and Chechnya

Two Russian passenger jets crashed within minutes of each other Tuesday night, one of them sending out a hijack or seizure signal just before crashing. This points strongly to terrorism - and potentially to separatist rebels in Russia's independence-minded province of Chechnya.

The Chechen rebel leadership denies any connection. But a controversial Chechen election this Sunday has been preceded by renewed rebel attacks in the Chechen capital, and Russia is braced for more terrorism in advance of the vote. In June, Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov promised "big attacks."

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Terrorism or tragic accident; link, or no link, the Chechnya problem is back on the front burner of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Much more than a minor irritant, it has cost Russia lives and rubles through two wars, and taken a toll on its relations with Europe and the US. In mostly Muslim Chechnya, where tens of thousands have been killed, displaced, and persecuted, this ravaged land is now a base for 70,000 Russian troops.

Mr. Putin's approach - war and the installation of Moscow's hand picked leaders - doesn't appear to be effective at either stopping Chechen terrorist attacks, or stabilizing the province.

In the past two years, 500 people have been killed in terrorist actions in Russia, with Chechen guerrillas claiming responsibility for many of them. In May, Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-friendly leader, was assassinated.

This Sunday's special election for a new president seems a near repeat of the last one, widely seen as rigged. The front-runner, Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, is Moscow's favorite. And while Chechens have seven candidates to choose from, Mr. Alkhanov's main rival was struck from the ballot on a technicality.

Time and again, opportunities for more power sharing in the province present themselves, yet Putin passes on them. Next spring, the Chechens are to choose a new parliament, a vote repeatedly delayed. Will Moscow control that election, too?