Political Implications of the Moscow Terror Bombings

Political Implications of the Moscow Terror Bombings

By Cathy Young - April 7, 2010

The explosions that struck on the Moscow subway on the morning of March 29, killing 39 people in two separate attacks and injuring dozens more, have brought back inevitable memories of the terrorist bombings that rocked Russia more than a decade ago. The attacks, carried out by two female suicide bombers with apparent ties to radical Muslim groups, have highlighted the danger of the Islamist extremism that is a common threat for Russia and the West today but they have also been a troubling reminder of the threat Russians face from their own government.

In 1999, the apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities that left nearly 300 dead and 650 injured created a climate of terror that helped Vladimir Putin then Boris Yeltsin's newly appointed prime minister emerge as an authoritarian strongman. With the blame placed on Chechen separatists, the attacks also helped justify a new war in Chechnya. There is a common view among anti-Putin journalists and activists in Russia, also shared by some in the West, that the bombings were engineered by the Federal Security Service (the FSB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB and Putin's former employer). While this sounds like "truth about September 11"-style paranoia, the conspiracy theories are far better grounded in this case: the official version of the attack left plenty of loose ends, no independent parliamentary investigation was ever permitted, and, most strikingly, FSB agents were caught planting explosives in an apartment building in the city of Ryazan in what was rather implausibly described as a training exercise.

Whether or not security services had a role in the bombings -- possibly by infiltrating and manipulating extremist groups -- there is no doubt that the attacks were used as an excuse for a revival of authoritarian statism, starting with the return of censorship on television. Five years later, the tragedy in Beslan, where over 1,000 people in a school building, mostly children, were taken hostage by Chechen militants and at least 334 were killed, led to further curbs on political freedoms in Russia (including the abolition of gubernatorial elections).

With last weeks bombings, speculation about a Kremlin or FSB connection began at once and not just on the lunatic fringe. Among those voicing such suspicions was an award-winning Russian journalist Boris Vishnevsky, a commentator for Novaya Gazeta -- an independent newspaper respectable enough to have been granted an interview by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a year ago. Hours after the bombings, Vishnevsky blogged on the website that the timing seemed a bit too convenient for the authorities.

Noting the recent wave of anti-government protests around the country, many openly demanding Vladimir Putins resignation as prime minister, Vishnevsky suggested that the subway bombings may have been intended to give Putin a chance to shine as a strong leader and to further tighten the screws against critics: "For this, the special services don't even need to organize the terrorist attack themselves by using their own Chechens Its enough to have information that such an attack is being planned, and not be overzealous in trying to prevent it."

Similar concerns were expressed by columnist and Hudson Institute fellow Andrei Piontkovsky, whose commentary was titled, "The Second Coming of the Savior." Others, including noted human rights activist Ludmila Alexeyeva and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, did not go so far as to suggest actual government involvement in the attacks but warned that the Kremlin regime had a habit of using such events to strengthen its power and curb dissent.

Is the timing of the attacks as suspect as critics believe? Last month's anti-government protests may not have been a particular worry for the Kremlin: a national "Day of Anger" held by anti-government groups on Sunday, March 21 was a relative disappointment for the opposition, with turnout at the rallies exceeding 1,000 in only a few cities. Observers quoted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta assert that street protests were far bigger and more potent early last year, when the global financial crisis had engendered fears of economic collapse and mass unemployment. So far, the bad economic news has not turned to disaster. However, while there has been no major outpouring of popular rage, there is ample evidence of simmering low-level discontent.

Theoretically, an attempt to shore up Putin's strongman credentials could also be related to Kremlin power struggles. While Medvedev is still widely regarded as a puppet and Putin as the real authority, conflicting signals continue. Medvedev's talk of the need for "modernization" has been seen as a call for both economic and political liberalization in Russia, as well as an implicit critique of Putin-era policies.

With Medvedev's first term as President ending in two years, the question of whether he will run for re-election or cede the presidency back to Putin (the two-term limit for presidents in the Russian Constitution applies only to consecutive terms) is increasingly relevant. Some top Medvedev advisors such as political consultant Igor Yurgens have openly urged him to run on a modernization platform, with backing from a substantial group of reform-minded people in the upper echelons of government. Such statements, Piontkovsky wrote two weeks before the subway bombings, amount to a declaration of war, making "a decisive battle between the two Kremlin clans" practically inevitable.

Could the bombings have been a covert strike in this war? For now, at least, it remains to be seen who will benefit. While Putin responded to the attacks with one of his trademark gutter-style tough-guy comments, saying that the organizers will be "pried off the bottom of the sewers," Medvedev has been far more visible in the aftermath of the tragedy and has contributed his own tough talk about taking harsher measures to eradicate terrorism. Moreover, a resurgence of terror in the heart of Moscow can be seen as devastating evidence that a decade of mostly Putin-led efforts to pacify Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus has been a failure.

So far, the suicide bombings have not led to new attacks on the battered remains of freedom in Russia. (The most shameless attempt to get political mileage out of the attacks has been a groundless suggestion by Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the FSB and now secretary of the Russian National Security Council, that the government of Georgia may have been linked to the terror plot.) But, given past precedent, vigilance is in order -- and, given the Russian governments aversion to transparency and penchant for intrigue behind closed doors, conspiracy theories that are paranoid yet not entirely implausible are going to flourish.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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