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Russia: Three Years Later, Moscow Apartment Bombings Remain Unsolved

Three years ago, a series of apartment block bombings left more than 300 people dead and sent shockwaves through the country's political landscape. The government blamed the explosions on Chechen terrorists, using the claim as a partial pretext for launching a second military campaign in the breakaway republic. But some critics claim Russian security services were actually responsible for the fatal explosions. Three years later, the brutal war in Chechnya continues with no end in sight -- and the blasts remain unsolved.

Moscow, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Early in the morning on 8 September 1999, a powerful explosion tore through the front of a nine-story apartment building in southeast Moscow, killing residents as they slept. Ninety-four people died. Four days later, a blast in a second Moscow residential building killed an additional 130 people.

The explosions were part of a series of apartment block blasts in Russia -- including the southern cities of Buinaksk and Volgodonsk -- that killed over 300 people in all.

The events shook the public's sense of security and ushered in a new era of leadership with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin assuming effective control of the country as President Boris Yeltsin retreated from political life.

Putin was quick to blame the explosions on Chechen terrorists and cited the horrifying events as part of his justification for launching a second major military campaign in Chechnya.

Chechen rebels denied any involvement in the blasts. But the apartment bombings, with their heavy human toll, unleashed a fresh wave of anti-Chechen sentiment in Russia and helped bolster support for the new war -- as well as for Putin, who rode to an easy victory in presidential elections the following year. His over-70-percent approval ratings have yet to drop.

And yet, three years later, the apartment bombings remain unsolved amid heated controversy over who planned the explosions and why.

Former Interior Ministry General Aslambek Aslakhanov is a Duma deputy representing Chechnya and a prominent Chechen rights advocate. He says no proof has been produced to back up the claim that the blasts were the work of Chechens -- and that none of the current suspects in the case are Chechens.

"Not even having seen the site of the bombings, the Russian authorities announced that it was done by Chechens and that [the explosive] hexogen was used -- about which no one had ever heard anything. I said on the third day afterward in a news conference that I didn't believe Chechens did it. I believe that this is a move directed against Chechens. And that's what actually happened."

In the days following the explosions, Aslakhanov proposed setting up a government commission to investigate the blasts, a move the Kremlin successfully opposed. Several subsequent requests to open an investigation have likewise been denied.

The government inaction has prompted some observers to suggest it was not Chechen terrorists who masterminded the bombings but members of the Federal Security Service, or FSB -- the KGB successor agency Putin headed until his promotion to prime minister in August 1999.

Critics complain that authorities allowed the apartment block rubble to be cleared away just days after the bombings -- too early for full onsite investigations to be completed. They also say officials failed to explain how Chechen rebels would benefit from high-profile bombings for which they repeatedly denied responsibility.

Prominent among the doubters is Putin adversary Boris Berezovskii, a onetime Kremlin insider who played a large part in orchestrating the president's rise to power. The controversial millionaire, who has seen his personal fortunes dwindle under the Putin regime, now lives in self-imposed exile abroad.

Berezovskii recently helped bankroll a documentary about the explosions that drew most of its conclusions from official statements on what remains one of the most puzzling chapters in the saga of the apartment blasts -- a near-bombing in the central Russian city of Ryazan.

The incident began on a late September night shortly after the two Moscow explosions. Residents of an apartment block saw a suspicious-looking car near a basement door and called police, who found large bags of white powder connected to a detonator with a timer set to go off at 5:30 the following morning.

The police said initial tests showed the powder was hexogen -- a World War II-era explosive used in the Moscow explosions -- and announced that they had narrowly averted another blast.

But two days later, just as police said they were about to make arrests in the case, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev surprised the country by stating on national television that the sacks in fact contained only sugar and had been used as part of a public safety drill staged by his agency. The basement of the Ryazan building was quickly cleared of all remaining evidence.

Official confusion over the incident prompted some critics, including commentators in the film financed by Berezovskii, to say the FSB likely did orchestrate the operation -- not as an exercise in counterterrorism but in order to blow up the building.

Vladimir Pribylovskii, president of the Panorama think tank, says the official line on the Ryazan bombing does not withstand even the slightest probing. He says a likely scenario is that the FSB probably did leave sacks of white powder in the Ryazan basement -- whether sugar or hexogen -- in order to "find" them later and claim a morale-boosting victory over terrorism.

"Instead of awards, the FSB received only bruises. With Ryazan, the official version completely doesn't fly. It's clear nothing comes together. But it's hard for me to believe that they really wanted to blow up [the building]."

Pribylovskii says that while Berezovskii's film -- which relied primarily on information already in the public domain -- provided solid criticism of the official explanation over Ryazan, it did not produce enough evidence to successfully accuse the FSB of blowing up the buildings in Moscow.

Leaders of the tycoon's Liberal Russia political movement screened the film in Moscow last March, but were unable to have it broadcast on television. Liberal Russia also called on the government yet again to open a public investigation.

But authorities continue to put a lid on public inquiries. The Prosecutor General's Office closed the Ryazan matter last May, saying it found no evidence of wrongdoing. The State Duma, meanwhile, refused to vote on a resolution calling for a government commission to investigate the Moscow bombings. Pribylovskii says, "As is well known, the Duma has only 450 deputies. Of those, 235 are controlled by pager. That is, they vote as the presidential administration tells them to. That's why an account of the bombings that isn't approved by the authorities could never pass in the Duma."

Many Russians view official statements on the matter with suspicion, but have little hope anything can be done to produce the truth.

Yurii Levada, director of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTSIOM), the country's top polling organization, tells RFE/RL that 81 percent of those polled in a survey last month said they did not think authorities would ever uncover the perpetrators of the Moscow blasts.

Investigators from the FSB and the Interior Ministry meanwhile claim to have made progress in their investigations. Last February, an FSB spokesman said "all of the people" involved in the Moscow attacks were "known" and that some of them had been arrested. Six men were also convicted last year in the Buinaksk bombing. But progress in the remaining cases appears to have stalled.

Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov is co-leader of Liberal Russia. He tells RFE/RL the fact that the Moscow bomb blasts remain unsolved continues to affect public opinion.

"More and more, people are beginning to think about what the special services are capable of doing when they have no system of control, neither by parliament nor the government, and when these special forces -- which have giant opportunities and secrets -- can manipulate public opinion and direct the course of events using all kinds of illegal methods at their discretion."

The government's refusal to respond to such accusations, Yushenkov says, contributes to public concern that security and safety are of no concern the government.

Thwarted in its attempt to push for an official commission, Liberal Russia spearheaded the creation of an independent group to look into several versions of the bombings. The body is headed by Duma deputy and human rights activist Sergei Kovaleev and includes politicians, journalists, and other public figures.

Yushenkov says government officials have tried to slow the commission's fact-gathering by refusing to provide information despite repeated requests. A number of commission members resigned after having receiving threats.

The group nonetheless continues to collect evidence, which it plans to make public by the beginning of next month in a report it will send to law enforcers and legislators. The commission says it will direct the document to the European Parliament if the Duma refuses to take the matter up.

Yushenkov says that while there is not yet adequate evidence to come to any one conclusion about the Moscow bombings, a sufficient amount exists to claim the FSB knew enough beforehand to have been able to prevent them. He adds that the independent commission's findings indicate that those who carried out the bombings at the very least had connections to the country's security forces.

Pribylovskii, meanwhile, says it will be impossible to uncover what actually happened anytime soon. "There's a possibility that we will know everything in 100 years," he says. "But that's not for certain."