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Analysis: Russia -- Between Terror And Corruption

  • Victor Yasmann --> The Moscow theater tragedy of October 2002 is still fresh in Russian minds (file photo) [For more on the recent wave of violence in Russia's ongoing battle with terrorism, click here --> .]

President Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the political climate following the tragic school hostage taking in Beslan earlier this month to accelerate his longstanding political course toward increased authoritarianism. Addressing the country on 13 September in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks that left more than 400 dead, Putin announced that Russia is now at war with international terrorism. He proposed a set of controversial political reforms, including abolishing the direct election of regional governors and the elimination of single-mandate-district representation in the State Duma. He also introduced measures to bolster the Kremlin's military-administrative control throughout the North Caucasus.

However, neither in this speech nor in other statements has Putin acknowledged a connection between Beslan and the long-running war in Chechnya. Instead, he has focused on "international terrorism" and terrorism's "supporters abroad" as the key to understanding the tragedy. However, practically no one outside Putin's administration doubts that the roots of Beslan lie in the Kremlin's policies and tactics in Chechnya. There are also few doubts that the Chechen war is consolidating international terrorism in Russia the same way that the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan activated international Muslim guerrillas.

Many analysts have argued that the continued unwillingness of the Putin administration to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict with so-called moderates within the ranks of the Chechen resistance is bolstering their cause and stimulating destabilization throughout the North Caucasus. No matter who the real organizers of the latest terrorist acts in Russia were, they would certainly not be able to find so many volunteers willing to carry them out if it were not for the devastating war in Chechnya.
Over the last several years, terrorist activity in Russia has gained a new dimension that reflects a pattern similar to that seen on the international stage.

The military resistance in Chechnya shows no sign of abating despite the fact that federal forces have managed to eliminate several key field commanders in recent months, including Arbi Baraev, Ruslan Gelaev, Abu Valid, and Khattab. In all, some 20 field commanders have been killed in the past year, according to "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 13 September. About 400 people are currently serving time in Russian prisons for terrorism, while 2,000 others are being sought by the authorities, the paper reported. Many analysts have attributed the continued resistance to radical field commander Shamil Basaev, who has repeatedly slipped from the grip of Russia's special services since he committed his first terrorist act in 1991.

For years now, some voices have asserted that the secret services are not interested in capturing Basaev, who has taken responsibility for the most striking terrorist acts of recent years, including the 1995 seizure of a hospital in Budennovsk, the October 2002 takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, and the Beslan school attack this month. Such skeptics argue that the officials in charge of the "antiterrorism operation" in Chechnya and, now, the "war against international terrorism" fear that such a victory would lead to a loss of their funding, influence, and prestige.

Others, including most recently Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, have recalled that Basaev got his start with Abkhazian separatists who were fighting against the Georgian authorities in the early 1990s with the backing of Russian military intelligence (GRU). "Basaev was the hero of the Abkhazian separatists in 1992-93," Saakashvili said on 16 September, responding to comments by Putin about separatism in the CIS, according to on 17 September. "And the blood of Georgian citizens is on his hands. Such people are a threat to Georgia, Russia, and all mankind."

Over the last several years, terrorist activity in Russia has gained a new dimension that reflects a pattern similar to that seen on the international stage. Such practices as the use of female suicide bombers and the targeting of schools have been used by terrorists in India, Sri Lanka, and Israel. In May 1994, a group of Palestinian terrorists captured a school in Maalot, Israel, and held 115 schoolchildren and teachers hostage.

Over the last five months, Russia has experienced a range of terrorist attacks that includes political assassinations, mass guerrilla raids, the downing of civilian aircraft, suicide bombings, and the Beslan hostage taking. In none of these cases did Russia's security forces demonstrate preparedness or inspire confidence that they will be able to prevent similar acts in the future.

On the night of 21-22 June, a group of about 200 gunmen raided the Ingushetian capital of Nazran and took control of the city for about 12 hours. The raid left 92 dead, including 62 officials of the republican Interior Ministry and other security agencies. The raiders seized an Interior Ministry arsenal and captured 300 pistols, 322 submachine guns, and six machine guns. Duma Deputy and former Federal Security Service officer Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia) said the raid underscored "the failure, shame, and disgrace of the Russian secret services," reported on 24 June. "How could army intelligence miss the deployment of so many Chechen fighters and how could electronic intelligence fail to intercept their communications?"

Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov posted a similar statement on the party's website ( on 25 June. "Although we have a large military formation and special-services presence in the region, all of a sudden a gang of fighters appears and kills the leadership [of local law enforcement organs]," Zyuganov wrote. "This means that intelligence and the [security] services are working very badly."

Military journalist Vladislav Shurygin went a step further, telling "Komsomolskaya pravda" that such successes indicate that Chechen fighters have agents working within the Russian security services.

On 24 August, two civilian airliners exploded in mid-flight almost simultaneously, killing all 90 passengers and crew aboard. FSB investigators have determined that the disasters were caused by explosions on board the planes, possibly explosive devices set off by Chechen women aboard each plane, Transportation Minister Igor Levitan, the head of the state investigating commission, said.

Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov has said that both women bought their tickets for the flights immediately before departure with the help of a ticket scalper named Armen Artyunov, who allegedly paid a bribe to a Sibir Airline official in exchange for helping one of the women board her flight without being searched. Artyunov and the Sibir official have been arrested. Ustinov also said that both women arrived earlier the same day from Daghestan and were briefly detained by airport security as suspicious people. They were brought to Mikhail Artamonov, the Interior Ministry officer in charge of counterterrorism at the airport, but he released them without examining them. He has also been arrested.

The school hostage taking in Beslan on 1-3 September was the worst terrorist incident in modern Russian history, leaving at least 338 dead and more than 700 injured. In all this year, about 625 Russian citizens have been killed and more than 1,500 injured in terrorist incidents. Since the beginning of the counterterrorism operation in Chechnya in 1999, an estimated 9,000 federal troops have been killed there, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 13 September.

If there is a single factor that determines the ineffectiveness of the Russian security services, it is corruption, military analyst Vladislav Shurygin wrote in "Zavtra," No. 37, this month. Shurygin argued that the main problem with Russia's secret services is that they too closely replicate Russia's corruption-riddled society. The FSB, he wrote, is clumsy, poorly managed, and servile, and pervasive corruption creates an ideal environment for terrorists. Moreover, Shurygin added, "it is not clear to Putin that the 'siloviki' are not the pillar of the state but rather are officials bogged down in intrigues and corruption who long ago forgot their duties."

The media have reported frequently on examples of how this corrupt society facilitated terrorist attacks, including traffic police who accepted bribes in exchange for not inspecting a convoy of vehicles, immigration-service officials taking money to issue travel documents to wanted criminals, corrupt military personnel who are prepared to sell modern weapons and explosives to criminals, or FSB officers who leak information about the work of their agency.

The Russian traffic police have long been identified as one of the most corrupt organizations in Russia, a problem that is particularly bad in the North Caucasus. Traffic-police veteran Batraz Takazov told Regnum on 15 September that a couple of years ago, residents in North Ossetia were so frustrated with systematic corruption by traffic police that they blocked the Transcaucasian Highway in protest. There are 20 checkpoints between Vladikavkaz and the Georgian border and motorists can be forced to pay bribes at each one. Those who pay particularly well can be assured of getting even a police escort that can take you all the way to the border without stopping.

"Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote on 13 September that terrorists are now using increasingly sophisticated weapons and explosives. A few years ago, they used mainly ordnance retrieved from unexploded shells and bombs, while now they use industrial explosives that are normally employed by the special services. The terrorists who attacked Beslan were equipped with the best sniper rifles and even the state-of-the-art Shmel flamethrower, the daily wrote. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov told TV-Tsentr on 7 September that security officials must be held accountable for Beslan. "We must ask them why the terrorists in Beslan had the best Russian weapons," Luzhkov said.

"Vremya novostei" and "Novye izvestiya" reported on 21 September that police the previous day arrested an FSB border-service warrant officer and two other men who are accused of helping wanted criminals to flee the country. One of the men allegedly roamed Moscow looking for clients, while another, a Palestinian who owns a small tourism company, provided them with false passports and other documents. The FSB officer then allegedly helped the clients to pass through the airport-security checkpoint where he worked. Reportedly, the group took $1,500 for each border crossing. During the arrest, investigators seized 10 blank Russian passports, airplane tickets, and more than 60 stamps of various organizations, including those of FSB border-service checkpoints. Investigators are still trying to determine how many criminals' escapes were abetted by this group.

The situation clearly demonstrates more than simply that Russia's security services are incapable of fighting modern terrorism; it suggests that their ineptitude and corruption are actually stimulating terrorism. As a special-forces officer in the popular new television series "Anti-Killer" said when asked why the terrorists are winning: "Because we are in business, and they are at war."