Can Russian democracy still survive?

`Any country would find this brand of terrorism hard to tackle. In the case of Russia it is foreign to its entire experience'

THIS IS a tale of two Russias. There is the vanished Russia, of the Soviet Union and its security services whose skullduggery of yesteryear is again engrossing our spy-besotted nation - its latest manifestations, a great-grandmother amid the flowers in her suburban Kentish garden, and a disgraced former Metropolitan police officer turned KGB "Romeo" agent. And who knows, maybe Melita Norwood and John Symonds really did once pose a mortal threat to the British realm.

And then there is the other Russia, today's democratic, post-Communist Russia, a Russia which no longer directly threatens us and whose internal misadventures, it may be argued, concern us so much less. But this is a Russia not of living ghosts from the past, but of an increasingly unstable and menacing present. Financial collapse, discredited politicians, a falling birthrate, a declining life expectancy, a state in which almost no one believes - tribulations which long since would have prompted insurrection in a less patient and enduring people. And now two apartment blocks in Moscow levelled by massive bombs, killing upwards of 200 innocent people as they slept, among the worst terrorist atrocities in modern European history.

No-one has claimed responsibility. But suspicion points inexorably to the south towards the Caucasus, to Chechnya where Russia fought its disastrous war between 1994 and 1996, and to neighbouring Dagestan, where Chechen insurgents have occupied villages and for two months have been fighting Moscow's troops. Drawing his own conclusions after a third bombing 10 days ago, the Interior Minister has even named two Chechen warlords, Khattab and Shamil Basayev, as having been behind the bombings. Inevitably, the name of Osama bin Laden has come up. But in truth nobody knows. Instead we may ponder how far and how fast the country has fallen.

Just 10 or 15 years ago, Russia was ruled by one of the strongest and most omnipresent central states in history. Today it is governed, if that is the right word, by one of the weakest. An intelligence and security service once dreaded at home and abroad is now impotent against modern terrorism on its own doorstep. But what goes around, comes around. The most likely culprits for the bombings are extremists from one or other of the lawless republics on Russia's southern, mostly Islamic, fringes - those same southern fringes where tsars and then general secretaries of the Communist party sought to impose Moscow's rule. Having sown the wind, a dismantled empire is now reaping the whirlwind.

Now, any country would find this brand of random terrorism hard to tackle. In Russia's case however is it especially difficult, foreign to the country's entire historical experience. The Soviet Union, thanks to those same redoutable security services, was never greatly troubled by terrorism of any sort. Before 1917, terror was traditionally the work of anarchists and revolutionaries, aimed at symbols of the regime: a prime minister, police chief, or in the case of Alexander II in March 1881, the tsar himself. The masses were never targets, because they did not matter. In the new democratic Russia, they do.

Even in wider Europe the precedents for this kind of attack are few. True, IRA bombs exploded in public places in the City of London, Warrington and Manchester, but even the IRA has stopped short of detonating the equivalent of half a ton of TNT in residential buildings at the dead of night (except of course a hotel in Brighton whose guests one October night in 1984 included Margaret Thatcher and half the Tory cabinet). The outrage that most closely resembles the ones in Moscow was the bomb which killed 80 people at Bologna station in 1980, planted by Italian rightwing terrorists in the hope of bringing about an authoritarian takeover by popular demand.

A similar, if equally perverse, logic can be imposed on events in Russia now. After all, we are approaching elections, first for the Duma in December, then the one that really matters, for the Presidency next June. Never before, whether ruled by tsar, Communist party, or elected president, has the country witnessed a democratic transfer of power, when a leader has not died or been overthrown in a coup, but steps down because he has served his term as decreed by the constitution. If all goes smoothly, Russia will have in a sense finally become "normal". But suppose Boris Yeltsin and/or his entourage have decided to rewrite the rules: might the bombs not be setting the stage for the declaration of a state of emergency, that would cause the elections to be postponed?

Unfortunately, like most conspiracy theories, this one overlooks several simple but inconvenient facts. First, Mr Yeltsin himself has made clear again and again that he opposes emergency rule. Second, his entire trackrecord suggests that on the biggest issue of all - democracy or totalitarianism for Russia - he is on the side of the angels.

Nonetheless, the theory is not quite completely implausible. Voting for the Duma, let alone for a new president, may be months off; but a campaign without quarter is already being waged by other means. Take the recent torrent of allegations of money laundering, corruption, diversion of International Monetary Fund loans, and sundry other financial shenanigans. The point lies not so much in their truth (wearily accepted by most Russians) as in their timing. The Yeltsin clan has already been tarred with accusations that a Swiss company carrying out renovation work at the Kremlin has picked up credit card bills run up by the President and his family.

But these will not be the last. In the weeks and months ahead we may expect revelations about other contenders for power, not least Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow and his new ally, the former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, currently the most popular politician in the country.

Russia is a land of jostling fiefdoms, of political parties backed by specific financial and industrial groups, with their own media outlets, their fixers and at the furthest fringes, their gunmen. Above all Russia has yet to acquire a law-based society, whose politicians serve the wider public interest, and whose everyday institutions - from the tax system to the customs service to the police - inspire a minimum of public trust. In a society like this, demoralised by financial collapse, ever more erratic leadership and ever waning influence abroad, the leap from assassination of a business or political rival to pre-dawn terror bombs in the apartment block is huge. But, one fears, not quite beyond the bounds of possibility.

And so back to the age-old question, reflected in the gross disparity of coverage in British papers between the long-ago doings of a little old lady in Bexleyheath and a terror bombing campaign in today's Russia without recent precedent.

Quite simply, does Russia matter any more ? And if it does, given the manifest failure of Western political encouragement and financial aid to produce a cure, is there anything we can do about it ?

The answer to the question is almost surely, not very much. We will reschedule loans which can never be repaid anyway. British and Western intelligence services will quietly offer Moscow what aid they can to bring the terrorists to book. The Americans will continue to help Russia dis-assemble and make safe its surplus stockpile of nuclear weapons. But ultimately we can but watch, holding our breath and pinning our hopes on elections which no bombs must be allowed to prevent.

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