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In Wake Of Metro Bombings, Putin's War On Terror Is Under Fire

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a video conference in response to the March 29 attacks.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a video conference in response to the March 29 attacks.
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By Brian Whitmore
Sadness, fear, and anger are in the air at Moscow's Park Kultury metro station a day after the Russian capital suffered its worst terrorist attack in years.

Police with dogs patrol the platform and the area outside the station. Upon exiting, passengers call loved ones on cell phones to let them know that they have arrived at their destination safely. A flower vendor does brisk business as Muscovites line up to purchase roses to pay respects to those who died here on March 29.

A young man who gave only his first name, Yevgeny, says passengers are eyeing each other with unusual suspicion.

"The atmosphere is very charged. People are looking over their shoulders," he says. "To be honest, it's pretty frightening."

It was exactly this kind of fear that Vladimir Putin, in his first stint as prime minister, pledged to eradicate more than a decade ago when he launched his military campaign in breakaway Chechnya after a series of mysterious apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in the autumn of 1999.

Putin rose to power and cemented his authority as a tough-talking former KGB colonel who would keep Russians safe from terrorism. He surrounded himself with veterans of the security services and justified rolling back democratic institutions and concentrating power in his own hands as necessary moves in a dangerous world.

But following the terrorist attacks in two Moscow metro stations that killed 39 people, Putin's critics say his policy of sacrificing liberty for security has failed, and his reputation as someone who can keep the country safe from terror is tarnished.

Putin broke off a trip to Siberia on March 29 to declare that "terrorists will be destroyed." And he used characteristically colorful language in remarks in Moscow today about how the authorities will deal with the threat of terrorism.

"We know that they are lying low, but it is already a matter of pride for law-enforcement agencies to drag them out of the depths of the sewer," Putin said.

But for many Russians, his tough words are ringing increasingly hollow.

Right Under Their Noses

Ilya Yashin, a youth activist, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that since Putin has concentrated so much power in his own hands, "he is responsible for everything that happens in our country" and should therefore be held accountable for the latest attacks.

"Not long ago Putin promised an end to terrorist acts in Russian cities and a military victory over terrorism. For this we gave up our political rights and civil liberties. We gave up the right to elect governors," Yashin said.

"All of this undoubtedly strengthened Vladimir Putin's personal power, but did nothing to provide for our security,” he continued. “Today's attacks can be seen as the collapse of Putin's antiterrorist policies."

Yashin said that while Putin is unlikely to be censured for the bombings, at the very least, the top Russian security officials who failed to prevent the attacks -- FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, and Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev -- should lose their jobs.

Likewise, Boris Nemtsov, a leading member of the opposition Solidarity movement, notes that while there have been no terrorist acts in the United States since September 11, 2001, attacks in Russia have intensified. He adds that Putin and his "siloviki" security service allies "declared victory over terrorism too early" and proved incompetent in fighting the battle.

"This happened right under the security services' noses," Nemtsov said, noting that the attack at the Lubyanka metro station took place in close proximity to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service.

"They are protecting the kleptocratic authorities and battling against the opposition instead of fighting terrorism,” Nemtsov said. “Sadly, nobody will be punished for this. They'll just find a scapegoat."

Nemtsov adds that many disturbing questions remain about the attacks.

"Nobody can explain how two female suicide bombers got to the center of Moscow. Nobody can answer how they got the explosives. Nobody can answer what the police and security services were doing to prevent this," Nemtsov said. "As long as nobody is held accountable among the authorities, it will not be possible to defeat terrorism."

House Cleaning Or Crackdown?

There are already signs that the Russian authorities are attempting to deflect blame for the bombings by internationalizing the attacks. Speaking at the G8 meeting in Ottawa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said militants operating on the Afghan-Pakistan border may have helped organize the Moscow attacks.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former deputy speaker of the State Duma who is now an opposition politician, called on President Dmitry Medvedev to closely monitor any investigation into the attacks to prevent the security services from whitewashing their shortcomings.

"This is without a doubt a failure for the security services," Ryzhkov said. "But we can only talk about personnel changes after there has been a complete investigation, and I hope that the president will demand a report on every stage of the investigation. If there is political control over the investigation, then I hope we can get a full picture."

So can Russia expect a house-cleaning? Probably not, analysts say. The security service veterans now surrounding Putin, while not as powerful as they were a few years ago, remain the strongest political constituency in Russia.

What is more likely, analysts say, is something similar to what happened after the 2004 Beslan hostage siege. Putin used that attack as a pretext to eliminate the direct election of regional governors and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

"Our system is not democratic. The security of the state and the authorities is considered more important than the safety of ordinary citizens," Lilia Shevtsova, a senior political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says. "We can therefore expect that there will be political fallout and this could result in limiting citizens' political and civil rights."

Some lawmakers are already calling for the return of capital punishment for convicted terrorists, and Medvedev went on television to call on judges to consider amending terrorism laws.

But Shevtsova and other analysts note that Russia today is already a different country than it was during and after the Beslan siege. For one thing, the ongoing recession has cut deeply into the ruling elite's authority, and antigovernment protests are mounting. Moreover, the law-enforcement bodies, which would be instrumental in any crackdown, have been discredited by a series of nasty public scandals.

"If there is going to be a crackdown, it will need to be carried out by the security structures. And we see how demoralized one of these structures -- the police -- are," Shevtsova says. "How can you use the security structures to strengthen repressive methods, when they are so degraded and demoralized? This is a serious question."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Larry Fitzgerald from: SF
March 30, 2010 20:34
Terrorism usually strikes democratic countries. Sadly, Russia has too much freedom today. Putin should move Russia toward soviet system. Soviet Russia never suffered from terrorism.
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by: James from: Washington DC
March 31, 2010 14:26
Wow, Larry, that is remarkable logic going on there.
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by: J from: US
April 01, 2010 00:00
Larry is wrong. But then, he is also right, in a way.
In Response

by: Marc from: Sochi
April 01, 2010 06:04
It's true. Soviet Union was much safer under communism. Now under capitalism, people suffer & much more crime. Capitalism cheapens humans.
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by: Richard from: France
April 01, 2010 11:40
Capitalism does not cheapen human life, terrorists do...Free market societies provide space for human beings to do what they will, even the evil ones.
I would rather live in a free society which terrorists can attack, then in a totaltarian one in which all feedoms have been erradicated.
No terrorist bombs go off in North Korea.
Should it thus become our social model?
In Response

by: J Dnetropova from: Omsk
April 04, 2010 00:44
Yes Larry, if the world would only rename the Great Terror something else such as, the Great Patriotic Reform, then perhaps Putin could return us to an era in which the only terrorists is our own government. The innocent millions put to torture and death under the Soviet Union are of course a small sacrifice to ensure a few dozen innocents will not be injured by a small band of militants. Of course one must also forget that the Caucuses were conquered and have been oppressed and cleansed due to the idea that religion conflicts with Marxist philosophy. I do not condone terrorism, but you must not compare these attacks to those in America. America was attacked by evil individuals who resented Washington preventing them from annihilate Israel. Despite what many say, in this America was an innocent victim. Nothing can be done to placate such evil people as those in the 9/11 attacks. These attacks in Moscow stem from the fact that these people wish to be free of Russian control in the same way that Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, and Czech have been freed. These people had family who were murdered by Russian military simply because they were 'in the way'. They are not Russian people in the Caucuses. They have their own culture and beliefs. The criminals must be arrested and stopped, but the Caucuses deserve free elections. Those that wish to be remain with Russia may re-locate there. The rest should be given their independence. I do not understand you Americans who hate your government.. Corruption will always be an enemy to all societies, but you have a strong government that works well. You have freedom greater than most people. America is a great country. Try living elsewhere and I think you will agree.

by: Liz from: Australia
March 31, 2010 01:13
Many large cities in the world today have elaborate surveillance systems in place around main streets, subways and in airports. The Russian government will be implementing more of these systems as a practical and effective means for capturing more "real time" activity to nip it in the bud so to speak, this would in no way infringe on people doing the right thing going about their business intending harm to no one. But an overall snapshot of the activities of people with insidious intent, using the latest technology will be of the most benefit to all citizens. Do not fall into a pit of paranoia over the future because that is playing right into the terrorists hands, that is what they want.

by: Ozzy from: UpstateNY
March 31, 2010 12:28
Brian ... you and Robert are very smart writers, why do you waste your time advocating the overthrow of Putin/Medvedev ... what you would get would be much, much worse despostic type ... like a former Yeltsin-era CPSU member w/notions of `Russian Manifest Destiny' or a current Communist-elite like Gennady Andreyevich Zyuganov, the current Communist First Secretary running the show. It would not stop terror, only increase the move to the left, harden hidden Post-Soviet ambitions of the CPSU and technically re-create the Soviet Union. They are a land of dozens of countries, and peoples and languages and they don't need to add the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics back to turn back the clocks 20yrs.

Maybe this should happen by 2012 and I am sure EU/American policy in the region would be better served ... right? You do realize Gennady Zyuganov actually beat Yeltsin in the 1996 election and the CPSU took the lionshare of Duma seats (that election was falsified by Yeltsin's machine and the West hailed it as some Earth-shaking victory of Democracy) - what makes you think it will not happen again?
In Response

by: Maleva from: bahamas
April 02, 2010 11:42
Not correct Liz, the cause of this terrorist act is the brutal repression of the Chechens by Russian soldiers. Rapes and unilteral murders. This is why the USA has stopped torture and closed off Guantanamo. The reaction to this Act show the immaturity of the Russian leaders. It will continue until Russia realise that independence and autonomy should be granted to its Islamic Republics. After all the Russian muslim do not follow extremist Islam. They only want to live in peace.

by: Arthur Rambler from: Yuzhnokurilsk, Russia
March 31, 2010 15:59
The Chechen terrorists have been suppported by the US and the CIA and, of course, the "free" American press, which has portrayed them as "heroic freedom fighters," while demonizing the Putin government as a "repressive totalitarian regime" which it isn't. When the US got hit on September 11, we were all supposed to cry and wail and condemn the "terrorists" (the Americans' former buddies). But when Russians or Serbs get attacked by terrorists, the US media makes it sound as if they (the victims) deserved it. And, of course, if the Russians or Serbs fight back against Islamic terrorism, they get accused of "genocide" or "human rights violations." Some "free" media!
In Response

by: mykry
March 31, 2010 20:25
Oh Arthur, stop rambling and stop blaming the US. Russian involvement in terrorism throughout the world, including the 'near abroad', and even on its own people, is second to none.
In Response

by: cd from: Boston, USA
April 01, 2010 08:38
You're not seeing the forest for all the trees blocking your view, Arthur.

The fundamental problem is the residual empire that Putin, the Last Czar, inherited and is trying to maintain. This empire must keep on killing those who reject or choose to rebel against its cruel yoke. Apologists for imperialism, like yourself, of course always pretend to be victims rather than in league with the victimizers.

In 10-20 years this terrorism will end because non-Russian areas like Chechnya will have seceded.
In Response

by: Ozzy from: UpstateNY
April 02, 2010 00:57
it's been 20 years almost since the first Chechen conflict ... and 10 years since the second Chechen conflict ... so good luck w/that theory ... not in 1000 years of Russia and defNOT in our lifetimes. At least the Baltics had some recent history of Independence over 400 plus years!
In Response

by: J Dnetropova from: Omsk
April 04, 2010 01:41
You have a heart of rock Arthur? I am one Russian who did cry at this horrible attacks on 9.11 and most other mothers here do the same. As a mother I will never condone violence. You think these people are the same because they share a religion? The Muslim world outside of Russia does not know about or care about these people and they have very little connection. You can do nothing to satisfy the evil men who attack the World Trade Center. They hate America because it prevent them from annihilate Israel. Should America let them this? If you do not value human life then perhaps you think it. Arthur the American press can say some crazy things sometimes, but they wish to promote their organization. But our news are now completely controlled by the state. Each essay must be approved and often re-written by the state. For a while we enjoyed freedom of press and could write what we think thanks to reforms. Putin has ended this and now is shutting down all radio stations with a critical opinion of him. Putin is driven by paranoia of western domination. His fear has clouded his mind in this matter. The Caucuses are a strategic point for him in an imaginary war that the rest of the world stopped fighting in 1989. Do not be so stupid. America does not care about Russia so long as Putin does not do something crazy. It is very sad to see this Paranoia still exist today. If you will look to the West at the EU, you will see a group of different cultures that have come together for the greater good. They do not need a leader with unlimited power. They do not need to be controlled by one state. They only need good relations with their neighbors. Maybe it is not perfect but it is much better than what we have here. While they thrive we are left in the stone age because of Paranoid old men like you. I am hoping cd is correct and we will let these people have their freedom. They are not innocent. They have fight for centuries but they deserve independence from Russia. If you do not agree that, then you should at least agree we are better to stay out of their business.

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