Emotional Putin vows tough reforms to combat terror

President Putin moved adroitly yesterday to regain the political initiative after the debacle in North Ossetia, speaking of the siege of the school at Beslan as "an all-out attack on our country" and a "direct intervention against Russia by international terrorism". He also said he would launch a comprehensive overhaul of Russia's military and emergency services, which he said had become dangerously weak.

Mr Putin was speaking in an emotional televised address to the Russian people, which he began with condolences for the bereaved and fierce condemnation of people who were "not only murderers, but who used weapons against defenceless children". His speech came only hours after a dramatic, night-time visit to Beslan to dispense orders to the military and visit the injured and bereaved.

Mr Putin's lightning round-trip, like his televised address, were seen as an attempt to silence the barrage of criticism about the botched rescue operation and his silence in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.

All Friday had passed without any appearance, or any statement, from the President. A swift response had been keenly anticipated because of the categorical undertaking Mr Putin had given at the start of the siege that he would authorise no action that might endanger the children's lives.

By Friday evening, it was already known that at least 100 had died - the number subsequently passed 300. The town of Beslan was in uproar, with armed civilians, crowds of angry locals and presumed hostage-takers all on the loose. Yet there was no word from anyone in central authority, only rudimentary statements.

A fortnight of terrorist attacks - two almost simultaneous plane crashes, a bomb near a Moscow underground station and then the Beslan siege - had alarmed and unnerved many Russians. It had also made Mr Putin appear weak and ineffectual for all the criticism in Moscow's reformist circles of his supposedly authoritarian tendencies.

Now, it was hardliners and their supporters who were making the running, demanding a show of strength from the Kremlin to deter such attacks in the future. Some Russians recalled Mr Putin's clumsy handling of the Kursk submarine disaster shortly after he took power.

The midnight trip to Beslan effectively scotched similar complaints this time, at least temporarily, although opinion in Beslan was not appeased. The urgency with which the Kremlin wanted to get out the twin messages - the President is in charge and feels for all those who are suffering - was apparent from the rapid appearance of his statement and a report of the trip on the Russian presidency website.

His address to the nation yesterday evening showed Mr Putin thoroughly in charge and appropriately compassionate. In an extraordinarily daring move, it also showed him gambling that he could exploit the very scale of this disaster at once to consolidate Moscow's authority over Russia's troubled borderlands and to enact sweeping reforms of the military and emergency services. If he could pull this off, it would be a stunning achievement comparable to Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to launch his policy of glasnost (openness) after the Chernobyl disaster.

Such boldness may allow Mr Putin to stem the immediate flow of criticism, but he will have to work harder to convince Russians that he can contain the perceived terrorist threat emanating from the north Caucasus in the longer term. And here, Mr Putin appears to be borrowing, almost shamelessly, from President Bush's script.

In each of the three recent terrorist attacks, including the school siege, Mr Putin has hazarded a link with al-Qa'ida. Whenever Mr Putin has spoken of terrorism in Russia, he has described Moscow's efforts to combat it as part of the "global war on terrorism".

Much will depend now on whether Mr Putin can keep the initiative and show that he has the resources and the will to pursue the promised reforms, as well as stand firm against terrorism in the wake of the Beslan carnage. If he can, Russians may well rally around him and turn their anger about the loss of so many lives away from the incompetence of the authorities and on to the terrorist enemy.

But if all he can do is borrow Mr Bush's rhetoric, Mr Putin risks placing himself in the position where his authority depends on convincing Russians that they are constantly in danger - a risky course to take.

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