Accessibility links

Here We Go Again

  • Brian Whitmore

The Kremlin seeks opportunity in tragedy -- again.

Some demonstrations are apparently OK. Others, not so much.

In the aftermath of this week's attack in St. Petersburg, Yury Shvytkin, the deputy chair of the State Duma's Defense Committee, has proposed placing a "moratorium" on public protests.

Such a move is necessary for public safety, he said, because terrorists time their attacks to "significant events and significant dates."

And apparently is isn't just dangerous to hold anti-Kremlin demonstrations. It's also dangerous to even promote them.

Another lawmaker, Vitaly Milonov, is introducing legislation that would ban online calls for unsanctioned demonstrations and require all social- media users to register with their passport data.

But if anti-Kremlin protests pose a security hazard, state-sponsored demonstrations are another matter entirely.

Because the Kremlin is reportedly encouraging Russia's regional leaders to organize antiterrorism rallies of their own.

According to a report in Kommersant, the aim is to have such state-sponsored rallies in every large Russian city, especially those where large numbers took to the streets on March 26 to protest official corruption.

The first of these, according to media reports, is planned for April 6 in Moscow.

Vladimir Putin's regime is apparently wasting no time in using Russia's latest terrorist attack to change the subject and shift the conversation.

Which should come as no surprise. We have, after all, seen this movie before.

From the 2002 Nord-Ost theater siege in Moscow to the 2004 Beslan school massacre to the 2013 bus and train-station bombings in Volgograd, the Kremlin has treated terrorist acts as opportunities to consolidate power and stifle dissent.

Following the Nord-Ost siege, new press restrictions were placed on the media. In the aftermath of Beslan, the Kremlin eliminated the direct election of governors. And after the Volgograd bombings, the authorities tightened controls on the Internet.

"As concerns about a renewed terrorist threat echo through Russian media, we should be cautious -- but not cynical -- in watching how a new narrative on terrorism is used by the Kremlin," Molly McKew, a former adviser to the Georgian and Moldovan governments, writes in Foreign Policy.

In the short term, the Kremlin is clearly trying to shift public attention away from the mass nationwide protests on March 26 that were sparked by corruption allegations against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

For a month after opposition leader Aleksei Navalny issued a report alleging that Medvedev owned a vast empire of mansions, estates, yachts, an Italian vineyard, and an 18th-century palace, the prime minister was silent.

He finally chose to respond to the allegations on April 4, one day after the St. Petersburg attacks, calling them "rubbish" and "nonsense."

The allegations, Medvedev added, were made "to try to drag people out into the streets for political purposes."

On the same day, according to Russian media reports, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called on lawmakers to defend Medvedev from attacks by Navalny, whom he accused of being "the voice of the Western security services."

In addition to seeking to use this week's attack to change the subject at home, the Kremlin also appears to be hoping that it will change the international conversation as well -- pushing issues like the war in Ukraine and Moscow's meddling in Western elections off the agenda.

Shortly after the attack, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it illustrated "the importance of stepping up joint efforts to combat this evil."

But it is far from clear that the Kremlin will continue to be able to exploit the aftermath of terrorist attacks to advance its political goals.

They've been doing it for years. And as a result, power has been consolidated, dissent has been suppressed -- and terrorism has continued.

And with Moscow's intervention in Syria's civil war, Russia is increasingly becoming a target of choice for jihadists.

And as this threat grows, it will pierce the Kremlin's carefully crafted aura of competence, omnipotence, and omnipresence.

"Terrorist attacks are becoming part of the political agenda in Russia, and that agenda is increasingly not under the control of the authorities," the daily Vedomosti wrote in an editorial this week.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

Your opinion

Show comments

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

Subscribe

XS
SM
MD
LG