Putin set to win despite suspicions about bombs

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The Independent Online

On the eve of the Russian presidential election, people in Kashirskoye Shosse in Moscow, where an explosion killed 119 people last year, largely disbelieve the official explanation that Chechen rebels laid the bomb, and they are cynical about the outcome of tomorrow's election.

It was the bomb in Kashirskoye Shosse, early in the morning of 13 September - five days after another bomb killed 92 people in Guryanova street, also in Moscow - which transformed Russian politics and ultimately made Vladimir Putin the runaway favourite to win the election.

"It was only at the beginning we thought it was the Chechens," said Svetlana Nikolaevna, who works in a kindergarten and lives in an apartment block next to the one destroyed by the bomb. "Now we think it was people in the Kremlin administration who wanted to stay in power."

Pyotr Volkov, a policeman who lives in the same building, said: "Either it was a terrorist act by Chechens or it was done by the [Russian] security services." At the same time, Mr Volkov said he was in favour of winning the war in Chechnya and would probably vote for Mr Putin, the acting president, because "I think he can really do things".

The bombs, clearly designed to kill as many civilians as possible, terrified Russians as a whole. They ensured public support for Mr Putin, who had just been appointed prime minister, when he launched the invasion of Chechnya three weeks later. The war, in turn, enabled the party supporting Mr Putin to do well in the parliamentary election in December and replace President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin on New Year's Eve.

Few people in Kashirskoye Shosse, a working class district, expressed much enthusiasm for any of the candidates.

"They have been silent and doing nothing for years," said Mr Volkov. "They only become active when elections happen."

Vyacheslav, a burly man walking his dog, who did not want to give his family name, said: "There is something artificial about Putin. He is a pink blanket used to cover all the black sins of our leaders." He planned to vote against all the candidates.

The spot where the destroyed building once stood is now a bare stretch of snow-covered earth with a simple monument in the centre around which relatives of those killed in the blast continue to heap flowers. There are pictures of those who died, many of them students, along with the numbers of the apartments where they died.

Everybody living in the eight-storey brick apartment blocks around the site of the explosion remembers the moment when the bomb, concealed in a basement, went off.

"I went to the kitchen and looked out through the broken window," said Igor Selin, an unemployed builder. "All I could see was smoke and dust. I went to my wife and told her to get out into the street." Others recall a horrible smell immediately after the explosion.

Only one out of ten people interviewed by The Independent thought that the Chechens were behind the bombings.

Several said they were suspicious that the explosions had stopped as soon as they seemed to have served their political purpose.

But the belief that the Kremlin may have bombed its own people does not seem to have done much damage to Mr Putin because voters are cynical about the motives and methods of all their potential leaders. "Anybody could have done it," said Vyacheslav. "There is no law here."

Mr Putin was the only political leader anyone mentioned. Those who said they might vote for him - though none expressed much enthusiasm - liked his air of self-assurance and competence. "I like Putin because he looks tough, a muzhik [peasant]," said Mr Selin, though he said he had not decided how he would vote.

Nor is there much sympathy for the Chechens. Vyacheslav expressed the view, common enough in Moscow, that there were too many people from the Caucasus in the capital. "They have too many privileges here," said Vyacheslav.

But overall, for good or ill, people in Kashirskoye Shosse thought the election of Mr Putin was inevitable.