As the Second Chechen War enters its sixth year, there is a pressing need to create an international commission to look into the important unanswered question of how it began.
In 1999, four apartment buildings were blown up in Russia at a cost of 300 lives. The bombings were attributed to Chechens and the attack galvanized the Russian population behind a new invasion of Chechnya. The war, in turn, elevated the political fortunes of the then prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who was subsequently elected president.
From the start, however, there have been doubts about the bombings fostered by strong evidence that it was not Chechens who were responsible but, on the contrary, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). These doubts call into question not just the legitimacy of the Second Chechen War but of the Russian political situation as a whole.
Contrary to official statements, the evidence of FSB involvement in the 1999 bombings is anything but insignificant. The explosive used in the four bombings was hexogen, which is used for topping off a new generation of Russian artillery shells. Hexogen is produced in only two factories in Russia, both of which are tightly guarded by the FSB.
More disturbing, FSB agents were actually caught planting a bomb in the basement of a fifth building in the city of Ryazan. After they were arrested by local authorities, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, offered the bizarre explanation that the bomb had been planted by the FSB as part of a training exercise to test the residents' "vigilance."
Members of an unofficial social commission that has tried to investigate the bombings have suffered a series of misfortunes that could be part of an official campaign to suppress them. On April 17, Sergei Yushenkov, a Duma member and the deputy chairman of the commission, was shot to death on the street in front of his Moscow apartment building. In June, Yuri Shchekochikhin, a Duma member and high ranking editor of the opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, who was also a member of the commission, died in a Moscow hospital after returning from Ryazan, amid signs that he had been poisoned.
The combination of the evidence of FSB involvement in the apartment bombings and the recent tragic fates of members of the Russian social commission have undermined the moral atmosphere in Russia. But as doubts have mounted about the 1999 terrorist acts, so has the world's indifference.
Increasingly, there is a tendency on the part of foreigners and Russians to say that there is no point in examining the events of September 1999 because, whoever was responsible for the bombings, the Putin regime, which came to power as a result of them, has brought Russia a period of much needed stability.
In fact, however, this attitude is dangerous for Russia and the world.
First, the drive to ignore the evidence of FSB involvement in the bombings inspires an atmosphere of unaccountability and encourages the steady drift in Russia toward authoritarianism. Opinion polls show that nearly 40 per cent of the Russian population believes that the FSB may have been involved in the apartment bombings, but the State Duma has repeatedly voted not to investigate the 1999 terrorist acts and the general prosecutor has declared the case closed, although journalists and independent investigators continue to unearth new evidence.
Second, the widespread suspicion that Putin achieved power with the help of a provocation creates a situation in which power in Russia in the future will change hands not democratically, but with the help of terror. This may occur regardless of whether the FSB was actually involved in the 1999 bombings if those who resort to terror believe they are acting in the framework of a tradition.
Finally, the failure to investigate the 1999 apartment bombings creates the conditions for the Chechen war to go on indefinitely. As long as the apartment bombings are blamed on Chechens, the Russian authorities can remain unyielding on the question of negotiating with any separatist on the grounds that all of them are terrorists. If a serious investigation were to show that the FSB played a role in the bombings, however, the Russian refusal to negotiate would make no sense. But even if it was found that Chechens were responsible for the bombings, a full investigation would clarify which Chechens were responsible, a process that could only counteract the tendency to see all Chechens as terrorists.
The mystery of the 1999 terrorist acts has long received insufficient attention in the West not because of the plausibility of official Russian explanations, but rather because of an unwillingness to face the dire implications of those explanations being false. Unfortunately, the cost of failing to raise legitimate questions about the 1999 events is also high. It will be paid in a less democratic and increasingly unstable Russia that is a danger to its own people and the international community as well.
David Satter is affiliated with the Hudson Institute, the Hoover Institution and the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. This is based on his remarks at the conference on Chechnya at the American Enterprise Institute, December 10, 2003.