Russia's Homeland Insecurity

Think the Kremlin will do everything in its power to prevent another terrorist attack? Don't bet on it.

Thirty-five people died, eighty-six in hospitals and ninety-four received outpatient treatment, according to emergency officials. These are the consequences of Monday’s terrorist act at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow. The airport operates hundreds of flights daily, and all members of the Star Alliance, including United Airlines, use Domodedovo as their principal hub.

President Medvedev postponed his trip to the Davos World Economic Forum. The recently appointed Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin pledged compensation from the city budget to the families of those killed and injured in Monday’s blast.

A source in law enforcement, on condition of anonymity, told RIA Novosti that security agencies had held information about a plausible attack in one of Moscow’s airports, but could not locate the suspects they were searching for.

But to comprehend the scale of this appalling crime one should look at the broader problem. This is the second terrorist attack in less than a year in the Russian capital. In March 2010, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in two metro stations at the height of rush hour, leaving thirty-nine dead.

In late October, the chief of the investigating agency, Alexander Bastrykin, reported that in the period from January to September 2010 the number of terrorist attacks in Russia was two and a half times that of the previous year. In December, the prosecutor general’s office reported that the number of terrorist attacks in the Caucasus region doubled in 2010, and the operational environment, according to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, has generally worsened. He also acknowledged that the terrorist threat throughout Russia remains high.

These revelations beg the question: What has been the benefit of more than a decade of military and political conflict in the Northern Caucasus?

Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s prime minister and preeminent political figure, came into power as president in 1999, promising to stabilize the country and the volatile Caucasus region in particular. Certain changes in political institutions and the press corps were promulgated with the explanation that these were not intended as limitations on freedom, but as essential leverage in the fight against the terrorists intimidating the nation. Then came the siege at a Moscow theater in 2002, with live TV broadcasting the terrorists pacing inside and special task force officers attempting to release hundreds of hostages. This was the last straw for freedom of the press.

The excessive liberties of the chaotic 1990s, as they were viewed, persuaded federal authorities to further hasten dramatic political changes in Russia. Now we find that the president appoints regional governors, and the federal authorities largely control national and state elections as well as those of mayors in principal cities. Billions of rubles from the federal budget are given annually to the southern regions to elevate their living standards, as well as to law enforcement agencies to improve their professional capabilities. Police patrols on Moscow streets check the IDs of passersby—particularly those with black hair, indicative of most Caucasians and other southerners.

Unfortunately, the situation is far from settled. Even Moscow residents cannot feel safe and secure, much less those in southern regions.

It is true that no city in the world today is immune to terrorist attacks. New York and London, Paris and Islamabad share this terrible experience. It is also true that Russia has transparent borders with most of its neighbors, some of which are not the most tranquil places. In addition, Russia has a turbulent Caucasus region, where various clans and the power hungry—not to mention financial interests—cross paths.

But this is just one part of the problem. The second, undoubtedly, is the efficiency and centralization of political institutions, lined up into the so-called “vertical of power,” with solid regional obedience to the federal authorities. The third reason is that along with this “vertical,” it was declared a few years ago that stability had been achieved. This pattern implies permanent reassurance from all political sources that people’s lives are becoming more prosperous and safer. But this, in turn, precludes public debates on the quality of government agencies and, even more importantly, takes ordinary citizens out of the decision-making process. Public opinion, thus, cannot serve anymore as an indicator when something goes wrong. This can be equally attributed to both state services and the private sector.

As a result, problems arise but are not solved and in the worst scenarios turn into real tragedies, as happened a year ago in the nightclub in the Ural city of Perm, where over 150 people died in a fire because of fireworks security violations. Or as happened last summer in the European part of Russia, when so many died from the heat and smoke of wildfires. It soon became evident that emergency crews were ill-equipped to stop the fire, and public transportation was not fitted with air-treatment systems.

And now—another tragedy on Monday in Domodedovo Airport, recently renovated, one of the biggest and busiest hubs in Russia. The saddest fact is that no one is betting every effort will be made to avoid such atrocities in future.