Monday, March 29, 2010

Trying to understand what happened in Moscow

It is never easy to understand what happens in Russia and what will emerge in the next few days and weeks may well present us with a very different picture from the one we dimly discern at the moment.

It is not a secret to any of my readers that I do not agree with the knee-jerk analysis of terrorist events in Russia. No, I do not think they can ever be justified but neither do I think they fit into the pattern of some world-wide jihad. Terrorism in Russia is part and parcel of the ongoing war in Chechnya, waged with brutal ferocity on both sides and to which there appears to be no end.

Let us not forget that the second war (the first one was more or less settled under Yeltsin though it was clear to anyone who looked at it carefully that the last word had not been spoken) began in real earnest after a number of extremely suspicious explosions in various apartment blocks that could not be called strategic targets. There were many rather odd circumstances around those explosions and all those who tried to investigate, among them Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, came to a bad end.

It did, however, achieve one thing: it propelled a then little know politician to the top who played the tough guy part with relish and promised in no uncertain terms to sort the problem out, whatever it takes. The politician’s name was Vladimir Putin, who has remained at the top ever since but the Chechnyan situation, alas, has not been sorted out. On the other hand, a number of Mr Putin’s own enemies have had a very bad time, some coming to a very bad end.

So with that background, let us try to look at what might have happened this morning on the crowded Moscow metro. Two bombs exploded, killing at least 37 people and injuring 102. (Pictures on the BBC site.) No organization has claimed responsibility but the immediate assumption is that the attacks were connected with North Caucasian groups.
TWO terrorist bombers on the Moscow metro killed at least 37 people and injured 102 in the morning rush hour on Monday March 29th. The first explosion, which killed 22 people and injured 12, struck just before 8am at the Lubyanka metro station, a few hundred feet from the Kremlin and next to the headquarters of the Federal Security Services, the successor to the KGB. The second bomb went off at Park Kultury, by the main circular road in central Moscow, killing at least 15.

The Russian security services said two female suicide bombers from the north Caucasus were responsible. The bombs might have been operated with the use of mobile phones, which work unhindered in the Moscow metro. Russia’s emergency services appeared to be working in an orderly and co-ordinated way, cordoning off only the areas immediately affected by the explosions. Other metro lines remained open, with trains running regularly. There was a striking absence of panic in the capital, but no immediate sense of public numbness; ordinary commuters went on with their daily routines.
If that account of the immediate after-effects is correct and the pictures indicate that it might be, one can only say that Moscow seemed a good deal better organized and better prepared than London was back in 2005. If memory serves, the whole city came to a standstill for the day, some parts were cordoned off for days and the lines that had been hit were closed for weeks not to mention the disappearance of any mobile telephone communication for several hours.

On the other hand, it is interesting that the security services knew immediately after the explosions that it had been two female suicide bombers (shakhidki), presumably widows of killed fighters. Some reports refer to body parts, which is all we have by way of information at the moment.

The Economist does not deal with that problem but gives a good account of the background, including this:
Russia has grown tragically familiar with terrorist attacks over the past two decades, during which it has fought two brutal wars in Chechnya, in the 1990s. But Moscow has not seen attacks such as these since August 2004, when a bomb on the Moscow metro killed nine people. Last November a bomb on the Nevsky express, which travels between Moscow and St Petersburg, killed 26 people and injured 100.
That story was on the backburner for some time but just recently it was announced that “Buryatsky, a notorious gang leader in Russia's North Caucasus, killed in a special operation on Tuesday, was involved in the derailment of a Moscow-St. Petersburg train in November 2009”.

At the same time ten people were arrested in connection with the explosions. It is to be noted that the operation, which ended with the arrests and the killing of the gang leader took place not in Chechnya but in neighbouring Ingushetiya. That war spread out of Chechnya a long time ago.

As the Economist points out:
Mr Medvedev has described the situation in the north Caucasus as one of the greatest threats facing Russia. Yet corruption and brutality among Russia’s security and military services have undoubtedly contributed to the growth of extremism in the region. In Ingushetia, for example, corrupt officials have paid off insurgents to keep their lucrative fiefs. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, Ingushetia’s president, who moved to root out corruption, was almost killed in a terrorist attack last June.
There is, indeed, very little faith in the police or the security services in Russia, in their efficiency or probity. (Despite the apparent efficiency with which they handled this situation. Not the previous ones – the horror of the theatre siege and of Beslan should be seared in all our memories.)

Nor should we forget that the war against terror in Russia has meant the blatant destruction of the independent media and of democratic processes.
Big terrorist attacks have in the past been used by the Kremlin to justify tightening its grip on power and curbing the opposition. The second war in Chechnya, in 2000, which helped to propel Mr Putin into his presidency, was accompanied by a move to bring Russian television under Kremlin control. In 2004, after the school siege in Beslan, in North Ossetia, Mr Putin scrapped regional elections. It would be unfortunate if the Kremlin, rather than overhauling its security agencies and reviewing its north Caucasus policy, opts to act in similar fashion now.
Der Spiegel reports a later piece of news: a third suicide belt was found and defused by the investigators. At this stage it is unclear what happened to the person who, presumably, decided to escape. (There are more pictures on the site.)

Naturally, President Medvedev has promised to deal with those behind the attacks and Prime Minister Putin has interrupted his Siberian holiday to speed back to Moscow. There will, presumably, be reprisals in Chechnya and Ingushetiya and a tightening up of police control in Moscow, especially with regards to anyone who can be described as being from the Caucasus. There are reports of individual attacks on Chechnyans and anyone who can be described as Chechnyan but these cannot be taken seriously: there are constant attacks on the инородцы (inorodtsi) in Russian cities.

The two big questions remain: will the security services establish precisely who is behind this atrocity and will the government come up with any new ideas for dealing with the ongoing problem.


  1. correction: it is инородцы, not инородци.

  2. You are right. Careless proof-reading. A stealth edit is to follow. Heh!