Terror in Moscow, Again

At 7:56 a.m. on March 29, a loud explosion rocked Lubyanka metro station in central Moscow. Minutes later, a second device was detonated at Park Kultury. The deadly blasts during the morning rush hour claimed 39 lives. Dozens remain in hospitals, many in critical condition. Law enforcement agencies announced that both attacks were carried out by female suicide bombers, presumably from the North Caucasus.

All these years, while the Kremlin was usurping power in the name of “combating terrorism,” and while Russian police displayed its valor against peaceful protesters, North Caucasus, contrary to propaganda, has neither been stabilized nor pacified. Instead, the region has been given away to local strongmen—corrupt and brutal—in return for their personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Social, economic, and ethnic problems have not been solved, just brushed under the carpet. The reemergence of Caucasus-related terrorism should not come as a surprise. But the real question—cui bono? —will be answered in the next days and weeks.

In September 1999, over 300 people were killed in mysterious night bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk. No terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which coincided with Vladimir Putin’s emergence as prime minister. Bombings were followed by the start of a full-scale military campaign in Chechnya. Overwhelmed with fear and anger, Russian voters gave Mr. Putin a carte blanche for war: His newly-created Unity bloc scored a surprise victory in the December parliamentary elections. In a matter of weeks, an unremarkable bureaucrat was transformed into the “nation’s savior.” With President Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve, the transfer of power was complete. According to a recent poll conducted by the state-owned VTsIOM agency, a plurality of Russians—25 percent—believe that the 1999 bombings were organized by the security services as a pretext for war and everything that followed.

In October 2002 came the Moscow hostage crisis, when some 50 well-armed Chechens seized a theater with over 800 people. The standoff ended after three days with a gas attack in which the security services killed all terrorists and 129 hostages. The political result was a further tightening of government control over the media. Boris Jordan, the head of Russian television channel NTV and a former Kremlin protégé himself, was forced to resign after his network “incorrectly” covered the hostage crisis and the gas assault.

The last vestiges of Russian democracy disappeared after the 2004 attack in Beslan. On September 1, a group of Chechen and Ingush terrorists took more than 1,100 people hostage in the town’s school. On September 3, the Russian special services, acting on President Putin’s orders, stormed the building; 334 hostages, including 186 children, were killed. On September 13, Mr. Putin announced his “counter-terrorism” measures: The abolition of direct elections for regional governors in favor of presidential appointments and the abolition of direct single-member district elections for parliament in favor of the list-only system. With these “reforms,” the few remaining independent actors were removed from Russia’s political scene.

In 1999 it took 20 days from the first apartment bombing to Mr. Putin’s infamous “wiping out terrorists in the shithouse” speech and the launch of the war in Chechnya. In 2002 it took a month for Mr. Putin to blame journalists for trying to raise their ratings “on the blood of our citizens” (rich criticism from a man who owed his political ascent to a brutal war). In 2004 it took less than two weeks from the seizure of the Beslan school to Mr. Putin’s “counter-terrorism” package.

What will it be this time?

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