Post-Bombing Rundown

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What follows is basically an incomplete rundown of some of the commentary coming out of Russia.  It’s mostly based on the Russian language media since, frankly, much of the English language media is worthless with some exceptions.

The Western Party line, as gleaned from Owen Mathews’ piece in Newsweek, seems to be a simple, yet predictable one:

Unlike Israel, though, Putin does not have the option of building a wall across the North Caucasus to keep out bombers. The likely reaction will expanded surveillance powers for the FSB and stop-and-search powers for the police—thereby cutting off a fledgling civil-society movement to crack down on corruption and institute wholesale reforms of both those institutions. Most worryingly of all for the Kremlin, if the state continues to fail to provide security to its citizens, popular protests will only grow—putting opposition groups on collision course with a strengthened police.

What other conclusion could you possible come to when you quote people like Yulia Latynina and Tatyana Lokshina?  It’s just like Russia’s “opposition” to make it all about themselves with a little help from their Western cheerleaders.  Geez Lousie, I though these attacks were about killing Russians regardless of their political persuasion, not an indirect plot to squash Russia’s not-worth-considering liberal opposition.  Doku Umarov certainly wasn’t distinguishing between Russians’ political proclivities when he declared last month:

Blood will no longer be limited to our (Caucasus) cities and towns. The war is coming to their cities.

If Russians think the war only happens on television, somewhere far away in the Caucasus where it can’t reach them, inshaAllah (God willing), we plan to show them that the war will return to their homes.

Therefore, the zone of military actions will be extended to all Russia, Insha Allah, and I hope that this year we, Insha Allah, with Allah’s help, could expect successful operations.

Sounds like he’s a man of his word.

Speaking of words, the Russian press are unloading a lot of them, many of which are targeting the government in general and the security organs in particular.

Apropos, Nezamisimaya gazeta wrote the following on the symbolism of the authorities taking responsibility:

And here we approach the difficult issue of firings.  It’s understood that the immediate replacement of [FSB Chief] Bortnikov and [MVD Chief] Nurgaliev will not secure the Russian cities.  And of course nothing amazing will happen if President sent chinovniki packing. Something else would be surprising [though]: if some high ranking security official himself resigned.  It looks like no one is even thinking about the possibility of this act which as things are now would be completely understandable.

By declaring the dismissal or putting the question of blame before the leadership, chinovniki will effectively recognize that someone will be held accountable for what has happened.  And the FSB and MVD, without a doubt, are responsible for what happened in the Moscow metro.  Terrorists freely travel around the capital.  They are free to scope out targets with large crowds of people. And, by the way, with explosives you can’t buy at a grocery store.

It’s difficult to identify for oneself the most glaring and obvious failure of the Special Services and law enforcement agencies.  And as long as you don’t replace people, you continue to wait for some signs from those in charge to return the situation to a normal, intelligible course.

To issue a dismissal means to publicly acknowledge: Yes, I am not free from blame. Yes, I take responsibility. True, you cannot accept a resignation under this or any similar pretext.  But to us citizens, it is important to understand that there is a recognition of responsibility.  This perhaps will not calm us completely, but it will at least give us some right to hope for the best.  Honesty in these dark times gives such a right.

True, there is some value in top officials stepping forward and taking responsibility if only to reassure the public.  Who is directly responsible will only become clearer as time goes on.  There are reports that the security organs had information about a possible attack.  Knowing exactly what was known when will focus the microscope on those involved.  Luckily, Medvedev has shown that he’s not afraid to fire people.

Hindsight, however, is 20/20, as they say. As of now it seems that the government isn’t making any rash decisions. Whether these attacks will allow Putin to exert a “stronger hand” seems to be a particular obsession in the Western press. One should point out, though, the Duma is already thinking about reinstituting the death penalty for terrorists.  Medvedev has also called for some revamping of Russia’s terrorism laws but didn’t provide any specifics.  Nevertheless, the lack of specifics might be a good thing.  The hesitance might prove that Medvedev is in charge of this one despite Putin’s made-for-the-camera promise that the terrorists will be “dredged from the bottom of the sewers.”  Reports the Moscow Times:

The twin explosions that killed at least 39 people on Monday will not lead to a stifling of political and civil freedoms or a revamp of the law enforcement agencies — as has happened after major terrorist attacks in the past, security and political analysts said Tuesday.

In addition, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has experience leading the country though terrorist crises, is unlikely to strip decision-making powers from the more liberal-sounding President Dmitry Medvedev, who dealt with a terrorist attack alone for the first time Monday because Putin was away from the capital, the analysts said.

Putin, who flew back to Moscow from a trip to Krasnoyarsk, said Tuesday that “eliminating” terrorists was the task of the security services. But he made no additional comment about the government’s response to the attack.

Medvedev, in contrast, called not only for terrorists to be “eliminated” — a mantra he shares with Putin — but also for social and economic conditions to be improved in the North Caucasus, where the terrorist threat originates.

“This is a double-pronged task. It is very difficult to create proper, modern conditions for education and business and to destroy the corruption and clannish nepotism that has formed in the Caucasus over the centuries,” Medvedev said at a meeting with human rights activists.

This Putin = hard line and Medvedev = soft line, therefore, should not be interpreted as some kind potentially brewing antagonism between the two.  In fact, to borrow an idea historian Mark Steinberg puts forward in his lectures on the History of Russia, Russian leaders have tended to tilt either toward the “formidable” (groznyi) or the “reserved” (tishaishii).  It seems that when it comes to the present tandem, each leader fits one or the other based on their individual personality.  The question is whether Medvedev will ultimately stick with his emphasis on soft power in light of the attacks especially if he gets determined lobbying from his security people advocating force.

There has been some concern about retaliatory attacks against Muslims.  There have been a few isolated incidents of attacks against Muslim women “wearing shawls” reported in the Russian press, but Ramazan Abdulatipov, the chairman of the Russia’s Council of Nationalities reports that he has yet to receive any confirmation of their veracity.  This, of course, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.  It means that they are just not widespread enough to merit any special attention.

Whether these attacks are real or not doesn’t really matter in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension. Residents of the North Caucasus are naturally worried that Monday’s attacks will spark increased “Kavkaz-phobia.”  “I have a son studying in Moscow who lives with his uncle.  I spoke to him yesterday, and he was also deeply worried.  They say that there have already been cases of attacks on Caucasian natives and even women.  In the metro stations, bus terminals, and in other places Caucasians are always the first to be checked by the police,” Sovman Magomadov, a Grozny resident told the Caucasian Knot.

In regard to reports that cabbies were charging up to $100 for rides, the Moscow Times reports that many people have come forward with contrary stories of how taxis were transporting people for free.  Again, this doesn’t refute that there were isolated incidents of such behavior but it does show that Russians’ famed hospitality wins out in times of crisis.

Suspicions, and even levels of paranoia are naturally high. For example, there was one report about the evacuation of 45 people from an apartment building on Vadkovskii Alley because of a suspicious bottle of milk.

It seems that one of the biggest scandals to come out of this is the federal government’s slow response in spreading information about the bombings.  My friends at Robert Amsterdam’s blog have of course noted this, as frankly so are some in the Russian print media.  Moskovskii komsomoletsVadim Rechkalov, in my opinion one of the best journalists covering the North Caucasus at the moment, was the most vocal:

A somewhat intelligent person reacts to danger swiftly and correctly.  Because this danger threatens me personally.  All of my friends, who heard reports on the radio about the bombings in the metro reacted swiftly.  They quickly called their children and literally told them the following: “Sit home.  There are explosions in the metro.”

What prevented the government from doing the same?  What prevented them from cutting all of the cellular lines after the first blast?  If the bombs were carried out by suicide bombers, then disconnecting the lines wouldn’t have helped.  But if the explosions were triggered by radio signal? What prevented someone from the leadership, whether Medvedev, [FSB head] Bortnikov, or [Moscow mayor] Luzhkov go straight on the air on any of the federal television channels and speak to the people.  To tell people to not swarm to the metro and remain calm?  And what if there were not two bombs, but five?

Instead, from the moment when the first blast took place and till 9 a. m., the leading federal channels showed people singing, dancing, making breakfast and relieving pain with their hands. And only Russia Today worked as it should have–it provided pictures and commentary.  Reaching all over the world, this channel simply observed the global standard of journalism. But for us the morning shows were content with the antics of celebrities.

A somewhat intelligent person had to gain information for himself.  The young found out about everything on the internet.  The first pictures from the site of the tragedy appeared on the net 20 minutes after the first bomb.    The older people heard the “enemy’s voice” [vrazheskie golosa–a term for Western broadcasts in the Soviet period.–Sean].  More important people got the version and declarations from Russian federal television and the Russian federal government.

If anyone needs some historical perspective, the Huffington Post is offering some suggested readings here and here.

As for those who live in the North Caucasus, life amid violence continues as usual.

Frankly, I think Russia Today‘s emphasis that there is some Al-Qaeda connection is simply a way for Russia to avoid scrutiny on how it handles its terrorists.

And finally, I share the sentiments of Catherine Merridale (whose historical scholarship I rarely agree with), especially since Moscow is my home at the moment:

I could never condone the war in Chechnya, but I did know what Russians meant about terror, because I had been living in the very heart of Moscow just a year before. My commute then had started at Pushkinskaya metro station, one of the busiest, which I reached through a maze of seedy-looking underground tunnels lined with shops selling women’s underwear, hot pastries, and cigarettes. It was a bewildering place (I got lost every morning for weeks), made more so by the loud, repellent, mindless thump of 1990s Russian rock. And then, in August 1990, the music was drowned by human panic. A bomb exploded on the corner near the steps down from my flat, killing 13 people and injuring dozens of others. When my phone rang that night, it was to check I was alive.

Moscow mourned those deaths in its direct, personal way. People left flowers. Some stuck photographs on the shattered walls. Many prayed, crossing themselves and bowing their heads before hurrying to their trains. The place became a shrine, and soon it started to look almost quaint, or so a good many tourists appeared to think. Such numbers of outsiders (unless they were visibly Japanese, it was always assumed that they were Americans) came to photograph the simple, achingly unsophisticated tributes that the authorities moved in, banning all photography and posting a permanent armed sentry. Even now, with the marble walls restored and an official plaque in the place of those limp carnations, the guard is still there.

I do not doubt that the flowers are piling up at Park Kultury and Lyubyanka stations today. I do not doubt, either, that the sounds of human grief will soon be swallowed by the strident noise of patriotism. It is significant that Russia‘s national sense of entitlement has grown so strong that no-one has suggested, as they did in 2000, that the bombs were planted by Moscow’s own secret police. A nation, encouraged to think itself mistreated abroad and embattled at home, will soon call for a terrible revenge. If that takes the form of yet more brutality, of mass arrests and moves against the dark-skinned immigrants who work in Moscow, it will be difficult not to point accusing fingers at a chauvinistic state. But it would be a pity if we shrugged the whole thing off as something that is happening elsewhere: alien grieving, foreign culture, tricky politics. It was five in the morning here, and few of us have friends in Moscow, but I cannot think about these dead as if they belonged in another world.