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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.
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