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Published: 5/14/2004

An assassin changes all

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin, inaugurated last Friday for his second and last four-year term, was quickly provided a grim reality check by the assassination two days later of his man in Chechnya, President Akhmad Kadyrov.

Mr. Putin had won his election in March with an overwhelming 71 percent of the vote. Mr. Kadyrov, an Islamic cleric, won the Chechen elections last October with a large percentage also, but with a low turnout, reflecting his basic unpopularity.

Chechnya has been dogged for a decade now by an armed separatist resistance. Russia maintains thousands of troops in Chechnya to try to keep the rebellion under control.

Chechnya is probably the sharpest thorn in Mr. Putin's side as Russian president. The audacious killing of Mr. Kadyrov, carried out with explosives placed under his dais at a ceremony, obviously ended any hopes that his election had improved prospects for peace.

Mr. Kadyrov's death leaves Russia between a rock and a hard place in Chechnya. The only popular Chechen figures are violent separatists. Other Chechen non-separatist civilian politicians were pushed out of the way to make Mr. Kadyrov's election possible.

That route to peace in Chechnya wasn't working anyway and the assassination points up the firmness of the resistance of the separatists to being brought under control by force.

Otherwise, Mr. Putin is well positioned to tackle Russia's problems. He has a constitutional majority in the Duma, the Russian parliament. He has more or less brought the country's big business oligarchs to heel, although the economy is still plagued by corruption, inefficiency, and a deeply entrenched, oversized bureaucracy.

The rest of the world would also like to see Mr. Putin tilt the balance of governance in Russia toward political and social freedom, away from the sometimes overly strong hand that Russians seem to appreciate in him.

It would be better, for example, if he were more tolerant of media criticism and more attentive to the need for military reform.

In the short term, however, Mr. Putin will need to do something to try to stanch the bloodshed in Chechnya. Already a tough chore, it's made even more difficult by the killing of President Kadyrov.



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