Vladimir Kara-Murza, writing on World Affairs Journal:
Another year, another terrorist attack in Russia. On January 24, a suspected suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in the arrivals zone at Domodedovo, Moscow’s busiest airport. Thirty-five people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. As Vladimir Putin prepares for this year’s parliamentary “elections” and a possible return to the Kremlin in 2012, his “pacification” of the North Caucasus has once again been proven a failure. Not that more proof was needed after last year’s attack on Lubyanka metro station – literally under the nose of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service.
The Caucasus was Mr. Putin’s ticket to power in 1999. After his appointment as prime minister and a wave of mysterious apartment bombings blamed on “Chechen terrorists” (a plurality of Russians blame these attacks on the FSB itself), Mr. Putin ordered a full-scale military campaign in Chechnya, promising to “wipe out terrorists in the shithouse.” By December his newly created bloc, Unity, triumphed in parliamentary elections, riding a wave of fear and war hysteria; by New Year’s Eve, President Boris Yeltsin was gone, leaving Mr. Putin in control of Russia. Vladimir Putin would later use other terror-related tragedies — the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the 2004 attack on the school in Beslan — to strengthen his grip on power by, respectively, silencing critical voices on television and abolishing gubernatorial and parliamentary district elections.
Dismantling democracy proved easier than “wiping out terrorists.” On Mr. Putin’s watch, the number of terrorist attacks rose from 135 in 2000 to 786 in 2009. In 2009 alone, attacks increased by 50 percent. All this despite the rise in the security and law enforcement budget, from $2.8 billion to $31.3 billion, and an increase in Russia’s “army” of special service operatives to more than 2 million. Priorities lie elsewhere: the recently created “counter-extremism center” at the Interior Ministry specializes in targeting political dissent, while special police forces show their valor against peaceful opposition protesters.
Mr. Putin’s political strategy in the North Caucasus – striking deals with local strongmen, such as Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, who deliver loyalty and votes in return for generous budget handouts and a blank check on lawlessness – breeds terrorism and despair. According to Human Rights Watch’s just-released annual report, “security agencies continued to commit grave violations of fundamental human rights, such as torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.” Add to that the authoritarian rule, corruption, poverty, and mass unemployment.
A decade ago, the Kremlin rejected a political track in favor of the “shithouse” strategy. Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, whom Mr. Putin himself called “the lawfully elected president, whether we like it or not,” was branded a “terrorist” and killed. Any reference to him or his associates still stirs the Kremlin’s wrath, as was shown last week by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s protest over an event in Washington featuring Ilyas Akhmadov, Mr. Maskhadov’s former foreign minister. What had been a classic separatist movement in Chechnya was hijacked by Islamist fundamentalists and spread out to neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan. For this transformation, Mr. Putin’s heavy-handed and cynical approach to the Caucasus bears a direct responsibility.