The 8 August explosion in Moscow has thrown into high relief the gulf that exists in Russia between those who are prepared to play on prejudices against the Chechens and those who recognize the dangers of demonizing an entire people.

Immediately after the blast, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said that there were "many indications" that Chechen rebels were responsible for the bombing. But less than 24 hours later, President Vladimir Putin backed away from such assertions when he noted on national television that "it is very wrong when we brand one nation, because criminals-- terrorists above all--do not have a nation or a belief."

This difference in approach reflects a longstanding difference in the attitudes and calculations of the two men. Since at least October 1993, Luzhkov has played on the prejudices of some Russians against people from the Caucasus. In the wake of the conflict between then-President Boris Yeltsin and the country's parliament, Luzhkov issued a decree expelling from the Russian capital "people of Caucasian nationality."

He has regularly invoked its provisions in the years since that time, most recently during what was called Operation Whirlwind at the start of Moscow's second campaign in Chechnya. And because his decree was enforced with the assistance of federal authorities, many other localities followed his lead and sought to deflect popular anger by moving against the Chechens.

And Luzhkov's playing to popular prejudice and extremist nationalist attitudes in this case appears to be part and parcel of his larger agenda, which has included demands that Moscow seek the return to Russia of all or part of Crimea from Ukraine.

Whatever his personal views, Putin, by way of contrast, has been much more cautious in this regard. Part of the reason for that appears to lie in his understanding that large-scale attacks on the Chechens as a whole--or on Muslims as a group--could complicate Russia's relationship with the West and with Muslim countries as well as Moscow's ties with its own Muslim minorities.

When he launched the campaign in Chechnya last year, Putin initially made some sweeping statements about the Chechen nation, but he quickly backed away when it was pointed out that such remarks--which suggested that Moscow was interested in exterminating the Chechens as a group--were not playing well either in the Middle East or in Western Europe.

Another reason for Putin's caution appears to be his understanding that a sweeping attack on the Chechens as a whole has the effect of driving those Chechens who might be willing to cooperate with Moscow into the hands of proindependence Chechen groups and thus of complicating his efforts to end what he has called his campaign against terrorism.

Indeed, immediately after this week's explosion, Shamil Beno, an official in the pro-Moscow Chechen interim administration representative in the Russian capital, said publicly that comments like those of Luzhkov threaten stability both "in Chechnya and in Moscow itself." Beno's words were echoed by other Chechens, including those opposed to Moscow's rule in that North Caucasian republic.

And yet a third reason for Putin's relatively cautious approach is that many Russians are not persuaded by official charges that the Chechens are responsible for this or earlier terrorist acts in the Russian Federation.

A poll released two weeks ago, for example, found that 50 percent of Russians did not believe government claims that the Chechens were behind the attacks on apartment buildings in Russian cities a year ago. And a survey of more than 5,000 Russians the day after the bombing found that slightly more than one-third of them did not think that the Chechens were to blame for the latest explosion.

These poll results suggest that many Russians are not prepared to accept charges--like those made by Luzhkov-- without evidence. Many appear to take this position because they believe that the authorities must offer real evidence first. Others do so because they fear, on the basis of past experience, that sweeping attacks on the Chechens could lead to attacks on other groups or to serve as the justification for a new authoritarianism.

For all these reasons, Putin's reaction to the explosion in Moscow this week is likely to prove more politically prudent than the dramatic comments of Luzhkov, evidence of both the Russian president's pragmatism and the increasing unwillingness of Russian citizens to accept in the absence of clear evidence whatever the authorities say about Chechnya-- or indeed, about anything else.

UKRAINE TO REPAY $200 MILLION TO IMF AHEAD OF SCHEDULE? Serhiy Yaremenko, head of the National Bank's hard-currency regulation department, told journalists on 10 August that the IMF is likely to demand that Ukraine return $200 million worth of credits ahead of the repayment schedule, Interfax reported. According to Yaremenko, the IMF Board of Directors can make such a demand as a sanction for the bank's overstating of its hard currency reserves in 1997 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2000). Yaremenko said the bank is able to return such a sum immediately, because Ukraine's hard currency reserves are currently at $1.22 billion. He admitted, however, that the earlier repayment would harm Ukraine from a political viewpoint, causing "losses in other operations with capital." JM

KYIV GETS READY FOR MORE GAS DEBT TALKS WITH MOSCOW. Premier Viktor Yushchenko has said Ukraine's delegation for another round of gas debt talks with Russia will be headed by Fuel and Energy Minister Serhiy Yermilov, the "Eastern Economist Daily" reported on 10 August. Yushchenko added that the status of the delegation has not yet been determined and will depend on the status of its Russian counterpart. He noted that Kyiv's gas debt payment proposals include granting Russia a concession to part of Ukraine's gas transportation network. According to Yushchenko, the concession will extend from five to 10 years and details will be determined during the upcoming meeting. JM

UKRAINIAN CABINET TO PAY PENSION BACKLOG BY MID-SEPTEMBER. Premier Yushchenko on 10 August pledged that the government will repay all pension debts by 15 September, Interfax reported. This is the third consecutive promise by Yushchenko's cabinet to do away with the country's pension backlog, which on 1 July amounted to $478 million hryvni ($88 million). In February, the government said it will pay all pension arrears by the end of this year, while last month it promised to do that quicker, by 1 October. JM