Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The shadow of Putin

Two days after a suicde bomber unleashed carnage at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Russia is holding a day of mourning for its dead. In an attack as cowardly as it was brutal, thirty-five innocent people were killed and over one hundred more were injured. As the nation and the world begin to comrussia bombe to terms with this barbaric atrocity, many questions are emerging: who exactly was responsible? did the security services have advance warning? was there more that could that could have been done to save lives?

The biggest uncertainty though, is surely how the powers-that-be in the Kremlin will respond. Within hours of the blast, the finger of blame pointed towards to the North Caucuses – the origin of numerous attacks on Russian cities over the past decades. Consequently, fears of enhanced authoritarianism and ethnic persecution are rising once again.

Shortly after coming to power in 2008 Russian President Demitry Medvedev made brave promises to fight corruption and poverty – two of the main reasons why so many young men and women in the Caucuses have turned to militant Islam and expressed their anger at the Russian state through violent means. However, such a positive and progressive focus on the root causes of insurgency was quickly disregarded (if of course, it ever really existed at all). By the time an Islamist Chechen group bombed the Moscow metro last year Medvedev had fallen firmly back into the familiarly destructive mind-set of meeting violence with violence- ominously declaring:

"We have ripped the heads off the most infamous bandits but it appears that this was not enough. We will track them all down in due time and will punish them all, just as we did the previous ones."

putinThis provocative and dangerous stance was doubtlessly shaped, at least in part, by his autocratic Prime Minister and mentor Vladimir Putin – the man who most commentators assert has, in reality, held power over Medvedev’s administration since stepping down as president in line with constitutional term limits. Putin has, after all, spent years making political capital off attacks from the Caucuses, beginning with a series of bombings in Moscow during the Autumn of 1999, which he used justification to instigate war with Chechnya. This dramatically boosted his popularity as Prime Minister whilst undermining then President Boris Yeltsin. Putin took the Presidential office shortly afterwards.

Over subsequent years an array of evidence emerged suggesting that Putin’s security services had themselves played a part in the bombings: a ‘false flag’ operation to put their man in the top-job. When this theory was presented by dissidents Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky in Blowing up Russia the book was banned, copies were destroyed in Hitleresque style and Litvinenko was audaciously murdered in a London restaurant.

In the interim Putin exploited further attacks by militants to consolidate his authoritarian hold on Russia. The Moscow Theatre siege in 2002 led to permanent suppression of independent television stations, crippling an already restricted media and plummeting Russia down the press freedom index. Two years later the murder of children in a Beslan school was shamelessly-and somewhat ludicrously- used as an excuse to abolish elections for regional governors, replacing them with presidential appointments.

Such history makes Putin’s pledge for ‘revenge’ all the more ominous- especially considering his intention to stand for President again next year. Sadly there is a strong likelihood that he will play on state-orchestrated nationalism (the kind that resulted in violent racist riots after a Russian football fan died in a fight with a Caucasian last month) to bolster his support-base. If he does so – the true number of victims from Monday’s attack will be much higher than thirty-five.


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