THE MOSCOW SUBWAY BOMBING AND A PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE’S DISAPPEARANCE: AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN IN THE NEW WONDERLAND

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Predictably, the Moscow subway bombing has drawn a storm of commentary from Russian politicians.

“One gets the impression that they were ready for this terrorist attack, with suitable statements prepared in advance,” observes Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The first, of course, was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who stated authoritatively that “this action is inflaming the situation ahead of the election.” What’s more, Zhirinovsky predicted that “there will be more bombings in Russia during the presidential campaign,” and called for “special alert status” to be declared in Moscow.

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, Dmitri Rogozin spoke even more resolutely, calling for a nationwide state of emergency and a postponement of the presidential election.

Rogozin was resisted by Central Electoral Commission (CEC) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, who called on the authorities not to give in to acts of provocation by extremists. Veshnyakov said he is confident that “attempts to disrupt the election will not succeed.”

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov cut short a visit to the United States, and immediately after his return, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he made a number of resolute statements – predictably, the main one boiled down to promises of “tougher registration measures for new arrivals in Moscow.”

Meanwhile, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov promised to revise all laws aimed at countering terrorism. Gryzlov said: “I firmly believe that these laws should be revised in the direction of greater severity.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that the security and law enforcement agencies immediately interpreted Gryzlov’s statement as giving them the green light.

Vyacheslav Ushakov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), has already made it clear what the FSB expects from the parliament. “Russia ust take preventive measures in the area of fighting terrorism, including giving additional powers to the special services. Terrorist attacks need to be intercepted at an early stage, with possible masterminds and perpetrators alike being detained.”

There is nothing new about such initiatives and promises from the siloviki (security and law enforcement people), says Vremya Novostei; there have been plenty of them on earlier occasions. However, given that the previous Duma had a fairly strong democratic wing, “pushing the enforcement line was not all that easy.” In the new parliament, with a former interior minister as speaker, the siloviki are clearly counting on their initiatives being viewed more favorably.

Then again, Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the Duma legislation committee, has already noted that “our special services don’t want to admit that the severity of penalties doesn’t matter – what counts is the certainty that they will be applied,” not to mention that it is “unacceptable to respond to law-breaking by violating civil rights and breaking the law.”

Krasheninnikov’s view is shared by Gennadi Gudkov, a member of the Duma security committee. In his opinion, the problem is not that the laws aren’t tough enough; the problem is that they are not observed, as well as corruption and “the fact that corrupt police are still in the force.” And the state should not give in to requests for expanded powers, says Gudkov: “That would hurt ordinary citizens, not terrorists.”

Nevertheless, according to Vremya Novostei, the security and law enforcement agencies intend to use this opportunity to launch a PR campaign for tougher punitive measures, including the inevitable move of demanding a restoration of the death penalty – even though Russia would have to quit the Council of Europe and amend its own Constitution if it brings back capital punishment.

A Constitutional Court ruling on February 2, 1999 imposed a moratorium on executions until trial by jury is implemented nationwide. Vremya Novostei notes that jury trials are not scheduled for implementation in Chechnya until 2007.

Ever since Friday, the political subtext of the subway bombing has been discussed by all the leading players on Russia’s political stage – from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to presidential candidate Irina Khakamada.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Khakamada emphasized that the explosion near the Avtozavodskaya subway station is further evidence that the performance of Russia’s special services is not satisfactory. Khakamada said: “The latest horrifying terrorist attack has taken place at the start of the election campaign, and was undoubtedly motivated by the fact that the problem of Chechnya remains unresolved, whatever anyone there may say about its current regime being legitimate.”

Vladimir Putin also discerned a link to Chechnya in the bombing; he blamed it on “Aslan Maskhadov and his bandits.”

The president said: “This is not the first time we have seen crimes being committed in Russia simultaneously with calls from abroad for negotiation with terrorists.” However, the president emphasized that “Russia does not negotiate with terrorists – it destroys them.”

In the Izvestia newspaper, observer Yuri Bogomolov says this bombing should have been expected – not only because the terrorists have not laid down their arms, but primarily because an election campaign has started in Russia.

According to Bogomolov, “Basayev and Maskhadov are taking part in the campaign, on the side of those who are strongly opposed to the incumbent” – regardless of the wishes of the opposition candidates themselves. In 2000, fighting terrorism was a component of the political battle; but now, says Bogomolov, “terrorism itself has become a method of fighting the regime.” In other words, according to Bogomolov, terrorism has turned into a kind of political technique.

In any case, says Bogomolov, this is how liberal publicists are using it when they claim that what’s happening in the North Caucasus is an anti-colonialist war fought by the Chechen people against imperial Russia. In reality, according to Bogomolov, this is no more than a commonly-used media cliche: “What’s really happening is a battle for self-preservation by a group of terrorists led by Basayev and Maskhadov.” And no one should be deceived by the anti-colonialist nature of their actions, Bogomolov notes: the ideals of the national liberation movement met the same fate as the ideals of communism – they were drowned in blood.

Bogomolov says that according to another widespread myth, there is a quarrel between Basayev and Maskhadov: “We may soon see Basayev claim responsibility for the Moscow subway bombing, while Maskhadov condemns him for it – probably using Zakayev as his mouthpiece.”

In reality, according to Bogomolov, they are a united, close-knit team with a “rational division of labor”: “Basayev terrorizes Russia, Maskhadov tries to score some political points from that, and Zakayev, in Europe, presents a fine-looking and not at all fearsome mask for fearsome terrorism.”

In an article about Chechnya, Novye Izvestia observer Valery Yakov says: “Russian ‘hawks’ have spent the past decade lavishly sowing the seeds of hatred in Chechnya – and a dark harvest started to grow.”

Over the past decade of war, a generation that knows no other way of life has grown up in Chechnya: “Those who were adolescents in 1994 are now adults – if they survived. They haven’t had much choice over the past decade: the fear of being killed by Chechens, or the fear of being killed by outsiders.”

Shamil Basayev has started “making suicide bombers” out of this abandoned generation, says Yakov: “And sending them back to us loaded with explosives.”

The Vedomosti newspaper emphasizes: “We can’t even hope for the safety and well-being of Muscovites as long as the residents of Grozny are denied that very same safety and well-being. Alas, we cannot buy our way out of this war with billions of rubles in federal money: under the current regime in Chechnya, the money disappears somewhere en route from Moscow to Chechnya.” The “political regulation” process announced after the “grandiose election-appointment” of Akhmad Kadyrov has proved to be a dismal failure.

“It’s impossible to win two elections four years apart using the same slogan of a ‘small, victorious war on terrorism,'” says Alexander Cherkasov in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal. What’s more, it’s been a long time since anyone ventured to describe this war as either small or victorious.

These days, the underground terrorist network operating not only in the Caucasus, but throughout Russia, is a harsh reality. Moreover, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, although there have been all kinds of religious extremists – Wahhabi fundamentalists – within and beyond Chechnya for a long time, we have only been seeing Palestinian-style suicide bombings in the past 18 months. And stopping it is impossible, given Russia’s pervasive corruption and disorder in the military.

Cherkasov, a member of the Memorial human rights group, goes on to say: “Russian society is now facing pressure from two sides. On one side are the terrorists. On the other is the state, with its ‘fight against terrorism’ that makes the disease worse rather than curing it.”

The Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal article concludes that if “fighting terrorism” (along with “strengthening the rule of law” and “military reforms”) remains just an election slogan, nothing will change.

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov harshly criticizes the regime’s actions.

Zyuganov says: “The law enforcement agencies have only learned to provide fine-sounding reports to the media and the president about the measures they’re taking; nothing more can be expected from them.” Zyuganov emphasizes that we need to do more than fight terrorism – we must strive to destroy the roots of extremism. “Our people have been left defenseless – not because of the Chechens, but due to the collapse of the economy, incessant reforms in the security agencies, and the destruction of the fundamental structures of the state, the military, and the special services.”

In Novaya Gazeta, observer Yulia Latynina points out: “Four years ago, President Putin came to power promising to ‘kill off the terrorists in the toilets.’ But the toilets are still there. Chechnya has not been pacified.” The election of Kadyrov hasn’t changed anything, “since controlling voting booths is not the same as controlling all of Chechnya.”

Therefore, it has been decided to base the latest election campaign on the issue of fighting oligarchs rather than fighting terrorists: “Khodorkovsky is in jail, not Basayev.”

“Russia’s security and law enforcement system has AIDS,” says Latynina. Instead of carrying out its direct responsibilities, it is engaged in “extortion and business deals.” Moreover, “as reports of peace in Chechnya grow louder, more and more security services personnel will be busy dividing property rather than hunting terrorists, and bombings in Russia will become more and more frequent.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, says in an interview with Vremya Novostei: “It is said that the terrorists are a consequence of the unresolved Chechnya problem. That is incorrect; it’s been a long time since terrorism was equivalent to Chechnya. Even if we assume that Chechnya will be completely stabilized, terrorist attacks will not stop, since terrorism is now based outside Chechnya as well.” Pavlovsky emphasizes that the Chechen separatists “are developing closer links with organized crime” – the Moscow theater hostage-taking being an example of this.

According to Pavlovsky, the terrorists’ ultimate goal is “to strike at Putin’s popularity.” However, they will not achieve this goal; at any rate, disruption of the presidential election is “absolutely ruled out.” Pavlovsky says: “The election could be cancelled if there was a state of emergency, but no state of emergency is likely to be declared due to isolated terrorist attacks.”

In Pavlovsky’s view, the objectives of those behind the Moscow subway bombing include a kind of “suspicion campaign,” in which “some people have already become involved.” Pavlovsky notes that evidence of this can be seen among “the political fringe,” where there is talk of “state agencies themselves being responsible for bombings.”

As everyone knows, there has been such talk for a long time regarding the Moscow apartment building explosions in 1999, and the initiative for it came from Boris Berezovsky, Putin’s chief opponent. Without naming Berezovsky, Pavlovsky still notes that everyone who talks in this manner may be considered as “having long since dropped out of the context of politics.”

Georgy Satarov, head of the InDem Foundation, says the Moscow subway bombing will not have any impact on the election outcome – that is, on Putin’s expected victory: “He’s now in a position where no matter what happens in Russia, his popularity will keep rising.”

Satarov recalls that Boris Yeltsin was in a similar situation at one time – whatever happened to him was interpreted as “intrigues against the beloved president.” As Satarov explains in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “This is the state of the people’s soul; it’s temporary, but now is just such a time.”

Gennadi Zyuganov essentially agrees with Satarov; he emphasizes that “if someone was seeking to influence the election campaign, this method of doing so is inhuman. And it’s futile. So far, the public does not hold the regime, or the incumbent president himself, responsible for such disasters.”

And Vladimir Ryzhkov, well-known politician and Duma member, stated outright that “if the Chechens did this with the aim of doing Putin some damage, they miscalculated.” In any country, once a disaster happens, the nation rallies around the executive branch, which usually proposes “harsh measures.” This will happen in Russia as well: public opinion will be mobilized to resist the terrorist threat, raising the president’s popularity rating still higher.

However, it might be observed that the president’s popularity can’t possibly go any higher; according to the latest poll done by the ARPI agency, as reported by Novoe Vremya magazine, last week (before the subway bombing) 80% of respondents intended to vote for Putin. The remaining 20% chose the other candidates, including the controversial “against all candidates” option.

The ARPI poll invited respondents to choose from a lengthy list of issues that might draw voter attention if mentioned in campaign policy programs.

Predictably, the top response was the economy – of interest to 45% of respondents. This was followed by unemployment (21%), housing and utilities (21%), fighting corruption (14%), health care (13%), and so on, in decreasing order.

In last place was “development of democracy” – only 3% of respondents considered it an important issue for Russia. Most respondents said that “free elections don’t change anything in real life,” and “free speech only leads to violence and pornography on television,” while real power in Russia belongs to oligarchs and organized crime.

Novoe Vremya emphasizes that people don’t have any high hopes of the new Duma being able to resolve these problems; only 3-5% of respondents have confidence in the Duma. However, when asked whether there are circumstances in which the people require a strong, powerful leader – a “strong hand” – 50% of respondents answered “all the time.” A further 27% said that in certain situations, all power should be concentrated in the hands of one person. Only 21% said that all power should not be in the hands of one person under any circumstances.

However, as mentioned above, this poll was done before the subway bombing.

The name of Boris Berezovsky has started being mentioned in the national papers again over the past few days. The London-based exile is being linked in various ways with the latest election campaign scandal: the disappearance of presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin.

Rybkin mysteriously disappeared from his own Moscow apartment, immediately after being registered as a candidate. At first, few people took this seriously. However, several days later – even against the backdrop of the subway bombing – the question of “Where is Rybkin?” is gradually moving onto the front pages.

At first, the Vedomosti newspaper reported – citing sources in the Moscow police department and the Moscow branch of the FSB – that a missing person investigation was underway, since as yet there were no grounds to assume that any criminal activity was involved.

The experts interviewed by Vedomosti – Igor Bunin, head of the Political Techniques Center, and Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center – expressed the opinion that Rybkin’s disappearance primarily benefits his sponsor, Berezovsky, and that Rybkin would soon be found alive and well.

Other analysts pointed out that simulated murder attempts on candidates are a widely-used tactic in regional elections, and in the Rybkin case there is some hope of generating “a wave of sympathy” among right-wing voters, thus raising Rybkin’s support rating to some noticeable level, at least.

However, a simulated murder attempt is not the same as a candidate disappearing without trace; and the latter, according to the experts questioned by Vedomosti, is too risky.

Meanwhile, Boris Berezovsky said in an interview with the Kommersant newspaper that before the disappearance, Rybkin had told him of a strange telephone call in which he received “greetings from the Tambov guys.” Could this be the criminal connection police are seeking?

However, according to Berezovsky, Rybkin himself didn’t show any concern at all about this: “Ivan Rybkin only seems to be meek and mild; in reality he is a very tough, strong, courageous person. He understood the risks he was taking.”

Rybkin had been the target of intimidation attempts in the past, says Berezovsky: “Obstructions were created for him when he started speaking out against the regime. And he understood that there were risks involved – but he didn’t panic.”

Contrary to expectations, Rybkin had failed to reappear by Monday; this prompted Nezavisimaya Gazeta to comment that the presidential election, which at first seemed so predictable, “is growing more strange and more scandalous with every passing day.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that Ivan Rybkin, a third-rank candidate with one of the lowest support ratings, is becoming “the leading player in the election campaign process.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: “When Ivan Rybkin was expressing outrage and making revelations, almost nobody listened to him. But when Rybkin fell silent, this had the effect of a bombshell.”

Rybkin’s revelations were published on Monday in Novaya Gazeta, under the headline of “Putin had his own ‘Family.'”

In this interview, Rybkin spoke of certain business organizations which have rapidly increased their net worth over the past four years – allegedly due to patronage at the very highest level.

In addition to the well-known Roman Abramovich (“rewarded with the assets expropriated from Mikhail Khodorkovsky”), Rybkin also named Gennadi Timchenko, who controls the Surgutneftegaz oil and gas company, owns a refinery in the town of Kirishi, the Leningrad region, and has a dacha next door to Putin’s at the Ozero cooperative near St. Petersburg. Rybkin stated: “Once his friendship became not just a friendship with Putin, but a friendship with the president of the Russian Federation, his business fortunes started rising rapidly. I’m reasonably familiar with the oil business, and I understand that such growth doesn’t happen for no reason.”

Besides Timchenko, Rybkin also mentioned two brothers, Mikhail and Yuri Kovalchuk, who control the Bank of Russia’s main directorate for St. Petersburg, and the Evrofinans (Eurofinance) Bank. The latter bank is officially headed by someone else, but the major shareholders and real owners are the Kovalchuk brothers.

This particular bank has received a 49% stake in the ORT television network, as well as a 49% stake in GazpromMedia (the NTV shares). What’s more, according to Rybkin, work is now underway on a deal to transfer the remaining shares in GazpromMedia to Evrofinans Bank.

Rybkin told Novaya Gazeta that leading figures in the business community, including Yevgeny Primakov and Arkady Volsky, are well aware of all these facts; but they are only willing to discuss this issue “in whispers during private conversations.”

Despite his public statements, Rybkin himself did not produce any substantial evidence to back up his allegations. In an interview with the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, he said his only intention was to “outline the phenomenon” with the aim of drawing public attention, especially media attention. It’s then up to the media to seek out evidence, documents, and arguments.

Rybkin told Moskovskie Novosti: “Write, journalists, and investigate. After all, there is such a thing as a media investigation.”

But now it seems the fate of Ivan Petrovich Rybkin himself may become the focus of media investigations.

Indeed, it’s turning out to be an unusual presidential campaign; and as March 14 approaches, things are getting “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said in Wonderland.

What kind of land will we find ourselves living in after the election?

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