The suicide bombing at Moscow’s busiest airport last Monday exposed more than a failure by security services to man metal detectors or extinguish potential threats. The terrorist attack, which killed 35 people and injured more than 100, revealed cracks in the rigid political system that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin built over the last decade. It was those weaknesses that made last week’s tragedy possible — and provide the conditions for new attacks.
Terrorist acts by definition prey on the vulnerabilities of governments and their security agencies. No country, no matter how well-prepared, can consider itself immune to such strikes. Terrorists have targeted metropolises like New York, London, Madrid and Stockholm in recent years.
What makes Moscow stand out is the regularity of attacks and the government’s inability to thwart recurrences.
The Russian capital has suffered eight major terrorist acts over the past decade, according to Vedomosti newspaper’s count, including the 2002 Dubrovka theater siege and subway bombings in 2004 and 2010. Headlines about political assassinations and bomb blasts in Russia’s North Caucasus region — where an Islamist insurgency has mutated out of Chechnya’s separatist struggle of the 1990s — are so frequent that they rarely dominate the local news cycle for more than a few hours.
Not surprisingly, investigators have announced that an armed group from the North Caucasus was responsible for the explosion at Domodedovo Airport. Militants from the region have been blamed for most attacks in the past.
“Prevention of such terrorist acts is a complex affair, as is providing transportation security. Recent experience shows that. We need to substantially step up what’s being done and look at the problem on a nationwide scale.” Those were President Dmitri Medvedev’s words following dual suicide bombings in the Moscow metro less than a year ago. He may as well have uttered them last week when he railed against “passive” transportation police, who, if they do anything at all, shake down undocumented migrant workers at airports and train stations.
Putin, meanwhile, vowed that Russia would never negotiate with terrorists and indirectly defended his heavy-handed pacification of Chechnya by saying there didn’t appear to be a Chechen lead in the bombing.
The two leaders, who have ruled Russia together since Putin handpicked Medvedev as his successor to the presidency in 2008, were adopting familiar roles in their so-called “tandem” partnership. The younger Medvedev, in keeping with his liberal image, didn’t shirk from pointing out the obvious deficiencies of the country’s law enforcement agencies. Putin, as a former head of the Federal Security Service, promised “inevitable vengeance.”
Russians have heard it all before. Nobody expects anything to change because the Putin political machine, once vaunted as invincible, is incapable of meeting the country’s greatest challenges.
The unsolved murders of government critics are often cited as evidence of a callous police state. In fact, the killings better illustrate the extent to which state control has broken down. Corruption and a lack of accountability mean that law enforcement agencies have largely abdicated their intended functions. Sixty percent of Russians believe cops are primarily concerned with “securing their own interests,” while 24 percent think the police consider citizens’ safety a priority, according to a Levada Center poll published in November.
As if having a bloated but incompetent police force weren’t bad enough, Russia faces the additional problem that its terrorist threat is coming from inside its borders.
The mountainous North Caucasus region, which is mostly Muslim, was conquered by the czars in the 19th century and consists of a patchwork of tiny but distinct ethnic groups, including the Chechens. Putin, as President Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister, rose to the Russian presidency in 2000 after launching a campaign to stamp out Chechen separatism once and for all. While Chechnya today is ruled with an iron fist by the Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, Islamic extremism galvanized by the separatist struggle now feeds an underground movement across the region. Putin has been slow to acknowledge that poverty, a lack of economic opportunity and self-serving local authorities are filling the ranks of homegrown militants.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union into 15 independent countries in 1991, the greatest danger facing Russia as a unified state was that centrifugal forces would continue tearing the country apart. While the cause of Chechen independence was crushed, that danger has not entirely passed.
The paradox of the costly retention of Chechnya is that few Russians view the North Caucasus as an integral part of Russia worth keeping. Just three days before the Domodedovo attack, Putin pledged the region $13.5 billion in investments this year. Yet the thousands of chauvinists who chanted “Russia for Russians” at a rally outside the Kremlin walls in December were not just demanding the expulsion of North Caucasus diasporas but also the abandonment of a region seen as leeching off Moscow. The airport bombing only heightens the potential for interethnic strife.
Perhaps the biggest weakness in Putin’s Russia is the lack of a vigorous civil society to represent citizens’ interests; the government is too unresponsive. For most of the past 10 years, Russia’s government has avoided accountability by marginalizing the opposition, bringing the national TV broadcasters under its control and squeezing independent civic groups. Past terrorist attacks have been largely erased from public memory, as have uncomfortable questions over how they could have happened in the first place.
In the aftermath of the Domodedovo attack, Medvedev appealed to civil society to aid in the fight against terrorism. It was unclear whom he had in mind.
Lucian Kim, a journalist who has worked in Russia since 2003. He is working on a book about the Putin era.