Russian terrorism and power politics

Early this Summer, the Kremlin has been cleaning house in the so-called power agencies (siloviki). The firing of General Anatoly Kvashnin as chief of the General Staff sent the pundits into overdrive. At one end of the spectrum, analysts argued that the move was long overdue, while at the other, many maintained that it would have little or no effect.

As usual, most commentators linked Kvashnin’s removal to problems within the military. There is no question that the Kremlin had become concerned with the situation in the military — heads would not have rolled otherwise — but the Kremlin was concerned with the state of the military in a purely bureaucratic, not a professional sense. No one was punished or promoted on the basis of his job performance.

The issue is not the course of military operations in Chechnya or the progress of the much-ballyhooed military reform. The only real problem that had to be solved was that, despite Kvashnin’s loyalty to Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, President Vladimir Putin’s team did not have full control of the entire military, security and law enforcement complex.

During the past four years, the Kremlin has made very clear to all involved that mere loyalty is not enough. In the final analysis, the Putin team trusts no one but their own. The “civilian” Ivanov, who like Putin served in the foreign intelligence arm of the KGB, has also had to contend with the solidarity of the military top brass. Kvashnin wasn’t exactly a true-blue general himself, of course, having graduated from a nonmilitary university and “snuck into” the military though the back door, as many regulars believed. But compared to the former chekist Ivanov, Kvashnin looked like the genuine article.

Now command of the military has been unified. Next up — army intelligence (GRU), which until recently existed in a world of its own. The mutual hostility between military and civilian intelligence is well-known, and first emerged in the Soviet era. Now commercial rivalries have been added to the mix. Serving ideology or the interests of the state is a thing of the past.

Only dim memories remain of corporate ethics in the security services, which are increasingly dominated by a free-market spirit. Agents trained in surveillance now offer their services to private clients. Those trained in munitions make their money blowing things up. The closed system in these agencies makes it very easy for agents to launder money from their questionable moonlighting work through reliable people and mysterious companies both here and abroad.

As one military expert put it recently, army intelligence is gradually becoming a disorganized, badly managed confederation of various gangs and companies. The arrival of the Kremlin’s team will mean a renewed struggle for spheres of influence. We have a pretty good idea how this sort of thing happens in the mafia, but how will it play out in the security services and the many related organizations?

We won’t see all-out battles and the use of heavy artillery, of course. And increasingly dubious reports will be filed up the chain of command as before. But control will be lost entirely.

Right after this reshaping of power agencies started, I wrote in “The Moscow Times” that in this situation it was pointless to talk about a war on terrorism: “All sorts of nasty incidents will occur with increasing frequency, providing journalists with endless opportunities to divine when real extremists are involved and when we are dealing with a provocation. And barring other unexpected problems, those in power will regain control of the situation sooner or later, deal with the troublemakers and redirect the revenue streams. But for that time is needed, something the friends of the Kremlin might not have”.

Unfortunately, these predictions came true quite soon. Russians believe that August is a fateful month. 1991 coup, 1998 default, 2000 “Kursk” submarine disaster – that all happenned in August. So did 1999 terrorist attacks. Five years after the horrific apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities, two passenger jets went down last week, killing all 90 people on board. Later a bomb went off in Moscow killing 9 people.

And one day later, on September 1st terrorists in Beslan took 354 people as hostages, most of them children. But the difference between the authorities’ reaction in 1999 and now is startling. Back in 1999, the dust hadn’t settled after the explosions before officials were explaining to us in great detail that terrorists had planted the bombs. They told us who was to blame and where to find them. As it turned out, the government’s response had been painstakingly planned out in advance — like the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

This time around, however, the authorities stubbornly repeated that no evidence of a terrorist attack had been found, ignoring eyewitness reports. Instead, they mumbled something about poor-quality fuel. Only when they realized that the public nevertheless believed that terrorists were to blame did official experts reluctantly announce that traces of hexogen had been discovered on the wreckage of both planes.

Officials were the same as they were five years ago, but in a very similar situation they did just the opposite. What changed? Most likely, the people behind the attacks had changed. One way or another, the bombings five years ago fit right into the regime’s grand strategy. The plane crashes last week clearly did not.

It used to be that terrorists would claim responsibility for their actions and issue demands. Today the authorities are offering the explanations. Government officials tell us who is behind terrorist attacks and what the perpetrators hoped to achieve. The government and the security services speak for the mysteriously silent terrorists, functioning as some kind of press service. It goes without saying, however, that in doing so the regime is pursuing its own ends.

In 1999, the regime needed something like the apartment bombings as an excuse to start another war in Chechnya, which they needed as a backdrop for upcoming elections. The death of hundreds of people and the destruction of property presented the regime with a welcome opportunity to set the military and political machine in motion. Last week’s plane crashes, by contrast, served no purpose. The Putin team has been feeding us economic success stories and talking about stability.

Kremlin propagandists have already squeezed all they could out of the terrorism issue. And suddenly terrorism rears its ugly head once again.

Terrorist attacks are designed to send a message. But to whom? To Russian society? That’s not an option. There is no point in trying to frighten average Russians, because the state does more than enough to keep us frightened most of the time.

And why send a message to society in a country where the people have no real power? Explosions can influence the public consciousness in Spain and the United States, and maybe in Russia five years ago. But today, Russia just tallies up the corpses and, with masochistic satisfaction, observes that August is a dreadful month.

The latest terrorist attacks were clearly intended as a message to the Kremlin. It was no accident that one of the planes was flying from Moscow to Sochi, the same route that President Vladimir Putin frequently follows when he jets down to relax at his summer residence.

The message seems to have hit home, though in the Kremlin it didn’t find an appreciative audience. This would explain the inconsistency and incomprehensibility of official pronouncements on the crashes and the authorities’ reluctance to admit that terrorists were to blame.

Who sent the message? In the mid-1970s, when a wave of skyjackings was underway, airports worldwide implemented new security procedures that served them well until Sept. 11, 2001. As U.S. experience has shown, increased security measures have led to chaos in airports. The huge crowds that have resulted are themselves a potential target for terrorists. Yet even without additional measures, the existing security system is more than enough to deter the average terrorist. But when terrorists have friends in high places, when they are employed by state security services or when they themselves are government agents posing as terrorists, they are capable of penetrating any security system. And tightening security will not help.

The story of 9/11 is full of contradictions and gaps because no one in the U.S. government is prepared to consider the possiblity that the terrorists might have had accomplices on the inside. Russians are more cynical, or perhaps just less naive. The possibility of a connection between the security services and the terrorists comes up everytime something blows up.

With the hostage crisis in Beslan reaching its culmination, more and more voices started denouncing the FSB – government’s security agency and Putin’s main support base within the state apparatus. However it is not the FSB but rather military intelligence, which historically has exprience, knowlege and kadry necessary to prevent such attack. It was military intelligence, which was involved in training such famous terrorists as Shamil Basayev, and of course it also successfully infiltrated most of Chechen terrorist organizations. However in this current situation GRU seemed to do nothing to prevent the attacks.

Call it bureaucratic sabotage, if you like. Such things happen in corporations or in government agencies in many countries. But in Russia the consequences are particularly grim.

Attacks are not the work of isolated madmen. This is simply how the battle for power is waged in this country. Different security agencies competing for influence, rival bureaucracies struggling to control the decision making process, economic elites quarelling over privatized property, and, last not least, terrorist groups running around and offering their services to interested parties: this is the reality of Russian politics under Putin.

The Putin team planned to use “revolutionary” methods to realize its agenda, to solve all of its problems and meet all of its obligations in one fell swoop. They’ll strip pensioners of their benefits, herd university students into the Army and curtail free education and healthcare. They’ll try to undermine the power of the governors by redrawing administrative boundaries and amalgamating various regions. The liberal intelligentsia will be kept off the airwaves and the Communists will be driven out of politics. A new and improved oligarchy will be hastily created to replace the old disloyal one.

Revolutionary methods work well during a revolution, but you cannot destabilize a country in which revolutionary chaos already reigns.

The current regime has no plans to unleash revolution, or even counter-revolution, but what it certainly is achieving is creating chaos.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies

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