Premonition of disaster: another "dark August" in Russia


The month of August in Russia has confirmed its ominous reputation yet again. Following last week’s simultaneous crashes of two passenger jets that took off from Domodedovo Airport, the press is once again confronting the question of why terrorist attacks that claim many lives happen in late summer and early autumn.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta began its count from September 1999, when apartment building explosions killed 233 people in Moscow and 18 people in Volgodonsk.

A year later, in August 2000, a bombing in a pedestrian underpass on Pushkin Square claimed 13 lives.

The Moscow theater hostage-taking happened in October 2002, with 130 people losing their lives in the operation aimed at freeing the hostages.

In August 2003 there were several terrorist attacks: the truck-bombing of a hospital in Mozdok (50 deaths), the bomb on the Kislovodsk-Mineralnye Vody commuter train (six deaths), a series of bombings at bus stops in Krasnodar (five deaths); hundreds of people were injured.

As everyone knows, the terrorist attacks on America happened on September 11, 2001.

And as Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, Russia now has a September 11 of its own: 89 people dead, traces of hexogen explosives in the wreckage of the planes, and two Chechen women on the passenger lists – the only passengers whose remains have not been claimed by relatives.

The authorities confirmed the terrorist attack theory only several days later, and with great reluctance.

As the Vremya Novostei newspaper noted, the double terrorist attack shortly before Chechnya’s presidential election (itself necessitated by the death of Akhmad Kadyrov in a bombing at a Grozny stadium on May 9) represents a major failure for Russia’s special services.

Vremya Novostei emphasizes: “If two planes were hijacked by terrorists and blown out of the air, it means that somebody in Russia has attempted to stage a monstrous re-run of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States – and our special services have been unable to find and neutralize whoever is responsible.”

That is precisely why the two synchronized plane crashes were initially portrayed as “an incredible and tragic coincidence” (the words used by the Gazeta newspaper).

But even a week later, after the black boxes of the two planes had been located and their contents deciphered, there was still no consensus about what happened.

As Vremya Novostei reported, something like a political split occured in the process of investigating the causes of the plane crashes.

At a press conference on Monday, Federal Security Service (FSB) representatives finally confirmed the terrorist attack theory, with the following emphasis: “Such results are only announced when the findings are absolutely certain. These are legally valid documents, signed by experts.”

But an entirely different assessment of the investigation findings came from Transport Minister Igor Levitin, head of the state commission formed on the president’s orders to investigate the crashes: “As yet, there is no evidence of anything other than the planes breaking up in mid-air. It’s hard to say when the investigation will be completed, but we think it will take the commission a month to six weeks to release its final conclusions.”

As Vremya Novostei reports, both the special services and the airlines understand why Levitin made this cryptic statement. As one expert explained, it would be extremely disadvantageous for the state commission to declare terrorist attacks as the official version of events right now, when everyone’s attention – in Russia, and especially abroad – is focused on the investigation: “Such an admission would automatically entail admitting a significant security lapse at Domodedovo Airport. This would damage the reputation of an airport that claims to be the most advanced airport in Eastern Europe, as well as the company that runs it: EastLine. And that raises political and commercial issues.” So the official admission will come only after emotions have died down.

The expert added that the state commission’s policy is hardly justifiable: “Western airlines and the governments of other countries draw their own conclusions about the performance of Russian companies – based on their own observations and information, not on the reports of state commissions.”

This observation is also valid in relation to flight safety.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: “It’s not even a matter of the West disagreeing with Russia’s explanations. The West just doesn’t expect to receive sufficiently comprehensive answers from Moscow, so it goes ahead and makes its own assumptions.”

The very first morning after the crashes, when Nezavisimaya Gazeta asked whether it was appropriate to describe them as terrorist attacks even before investigators had come up with any specific findings, one foreigner replied: “What else could lead to the simultaneous crashes, in different locations, of two airliners that took off from the same airport?”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that all of the Western media are using similar reasoning: they immediately branded the crashes as terrorist attacks and linked them to the election in Chechnya.

Most Western papers confidently declared that Moscow was obviously delaying the unwelcome news until Monday, when Chechnya’s election would be over. The Guardian and Die Welt took this approach.

And according to the Washington Post, the American authorities ordered that from now on all Russian airliners would be escorted by fighter jets while flying over United States territory; if any plane is reported as being hijacked by terrorists, it could be shot down.

Aeroflot indignantly denied this report, stating that it has not received any warnings about special security measures being taken in relation to Russian airliners. According to Vremya Novostei, the deputy general director of Aeroflot even accused the American media of applying Cold War standards. But all Western airlines flying out of Moscow decided to search passengers and their luggage more thoroughly.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented: “It’s as if the foreigners are trying to ignore whatever Russia might be doing to improve security, and taking independent measures to protect themselves.”

It should be noted that the Russian press was also skeptical right from the start about the real causes of the explosions.

Kommersant-Vlast magazine said: “It is obvious that two terrorist attacks took place in Russia last Tuesday. It is obvious that they were timed for Alu Alkhanov’s election as president of Chechnya. It is obvious that the Russian authorities didn’t really want to admit this on the eve of the election.”

In Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Yulia Latynina emphasizes that the initial announcement from the authorities – that “all theories are being considered” – was no less than “an insult to the people who died.” It was also “an insult to the pilots, who could never have imagined, in the final moments of their lives, that they would be indirectly accused of criminal negligence.”

The Kremlin simply needs to prove that a “peace process” is under way in Chechnya, says Latynina: “And terrorist attacks do not happen when there’s a peace process under way.”

Latynina draws a parallel with the well-known circumstances of the Soviet Union’s entry into World War Two – when Stalin, having issued the order to “move to the offensive,” fell silent for several days and retreated to his dacha. The “highlander in the Kremlin” couldn’t believe that “the world-view he had created, in which Hitler would never attack, had collapsed.” Stalin proved “incapable of reconciling himself to reality quickly.”

Likewise, says Latynina, President Putin “could not respond quickly to these events. And the entire information hierarchy froze in suspense: what should they say?”

Then again, as Semyon Novoprudsky claims in Vremya Novostei, the public has practically grown used to the sense that the authorities frequently don’t reveal the full story, or tell outright lies: “The almost-simultaneous crashes of two passenger jets flying out of the same airport scares us, eliciting pain and sorrow, but it doesn’t surprise us. That’s what is really frightening.”

In effect, says Novoprudsky, the state is failing to perform its major function: “Although spending on the security agencies is being increased, and new special services are being created, and the security and law enforcement people are making tough statements, we do not feel safe. Neither do we have a clear impression of what the authorities are doing to protect each and every one of us.”

This observation is supported by opinion poll results.

Yuri Levada, director of a prominent polling agency, said in an interview with the Moskovskie Novosti weekly: “All polls in recent years have shown that the premonition of disaster is becoming a normal, everyday feeling in our society. People are fatalistically inclined to expect the worst, assuming that if there’s a bombing in one place today, there will be another bombing somewhere else tomorrow.”

Several weeks before the plane crashes experts of the Levada Center conducted a poll about the probability of terrorist attacks: “The majority replied affirmatively, linking them to the Chechen election.”

Meanwhile, says Yuri Levada, these events are unlikely to seriously affect the behavior of people: “The people have seen so much over the course of past several years that they are tired of being afraid… The bar of alarm is raised after each terrorist attack and goes down as the acme subsides.” It is possible to say that the alarming state is becoming chronic: “The people are killed and come under fire, but it’s not me. We keep living – this is the attitude.”

Nevertheless, says Yuri Levada, the bill against the regime has been growing: “Are the special services responsible for what is taking place?” – they reply: yes, they are.” The Moscow theater hostage-taking has been considered the most horrible blunder in the activities of the special services, “although the regime is silent about this. However, the people maintain their own opinion.”

As for the president, according to Levada, “he is not rebuked straight out, but the attitude to him is becoming cooler.”

The Russkii Kurier newspaper says that the plane crashes disastrously coincided with the anti-terrorist exercises which the Emergencies Ministry conducted in Vladivostok in late August.

Russkii Kurier notes that anti-terrorist exercises were also underway in the Primorye territory in early August when the guerrillas attacked Nazran.

“Nobody could plan so far as to conduct exercises of the special forces or the Emergencies Ministry twice the very day when the events are committed against which the exercises are planned. The enemy either accounts for our plans or the person who is planning the operation is a traitor,” says Russkii Kurier. Moreover, the plans of the authorities come to be known in advance, “and terrorist attacks only after they occur.”

In addition to being blind, the special services “are helpless where political decision is required: why are our houses and planes blasted? For how long shall we be suffering the massacre in the Caucasus?”

Moreover, this entire war, says Andrei Kalachinski, the author, is reduced to a “brawl for the right of stealing local oil. Will our companies be pumping it, fleecing Chechnya and hiding the income from Russia, or the Chechens will be embezzling themselves? – this is the barefaced point of war.”

In the opinion of the author, “the president has few options now: either to endure the fire of grenade launchers on demonstrations in Grozny and Makhachkala,” expecting new terrorist attacks to take place in Russian cities, or use the experience of Stalin’s era and “resettle all Chechens to Saudi Arabia or any other country which agrees to accept them. Or else, settle their lands with another belligerent but loyal nation, for instance Kurds.” Another option exists: “return Chechnya under control of an elder and stronger brother – Ingushetia or Dagestan.”

Of course if they agree and cope with their own problems – they are almost similar throughout the North Caucasus.

When Yeltsin “gave his blessing the collapse of our country” in early 1990s he said: “Take as much sovereignty as you can,” thus expressing “a very straightforward idea: seize everything and scatter, since nobody will take care of you, praise or punish you.”

The Russian regime is now trying to regain the “scattered hoard,” but its efforts remain futile in the case of Chechnya.

“If the Kremlin hadn’t joined the regular war in Chechnya, we’d most likely have a kind of regional Harlem there,” Novoye Vremya magazine assumed.

Indeed, says the magazine, “typical Harlem philistines don’t suit the general social landscape of the North American federation and are regularly violating its laws. However, the authorities have never put Harlem under the fire of missiles or ever arranged total cleanups there, but try to show specific criminals only when they are caught red-handed outside the “bad place.” The aboriginal residents of Harlem are not quite willing to flee.” Thus, a kind of Constitutional order undoubtedly exists in Harlem and the majority of citizens “prefers maintaining it voluntary.”

At the moment, says Novoye Vremya, Russia has in its North Caucasus “either an East Timor or a South Mindanao” and is forced to act like unfortunate “third-world states,” where the governments have “to endlessly fight separatists, drug trafficking and other problems.”

Similar adversities are evidently hindering the Russian political elite from taking the full advantage of the stability which had been achieved under the hindrance of similar hardships, says renowned sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Russia’s political class viewed the 1990s as a rush to disaster. Saving the nation was on the agenda. That’s why the regime is euphoric now: “Russia has been saved! Revolution has been averted!” says Kryshtanovskaya.

In the opinion of the author this has been achieved by means of some extraordinary measures.

In particular, the number of siloviki reaches 77% in the powerful structures now. This is only a guess, says Kryshtanovskaya, (official figure is approaching 25%, which is also not quite few).

The KGB had a lot of affiliated structures – foreign bureaus of newspapers, diplomatic services, and so on. Add these “affiliates” to the known 24.7%, and you will get an impressive 77%. Moreover, reminds the author, there were agents of first directorates, who weren’t on the staff of the special services but had constant contacts with them.

Just like in Soviet times, the personnel nowadays are apparatchiks, like ants in an anthill, people with a collectivist mindset, who serve as a support for political power.

Despite the common point that everything in Russia now depends on the president, Kryshtanovskaya is saying that Putin has created a model with levels of support for himself reaching a long way down. In the opinion of the author, “it is quite close to what we had in Soviet times, when the party had a great many low-level branches, plus the Komsomol (Communist Youth League); there was a vertically-integrated economy, and a common party-administration nomenklatura.”

The power has been consistently forming the model of governance which seemed to be optimal. The public doesn’t object to it, “because hierarchy is a symbol of order.”

It is easier for the authorities to rule us. Whether the life has become better in the country is a different question.

As Kryshtanovskaya concluded in her another interview, society is split again: “The political class is busy dividing portfolios, resources, and privileges. The people are on the other side of the barricades again.”

The barrier between the elite and the people is getting higher and higher, says the author: society is busy with survival (the poor) and consumption (the wealthy).

It is possible to say of a consensus in the country: “The power and society are not bothering one another. Everybody lives his own life: some get chronic drunkards, other deal in shopping, divide power and money.”

As for siloviki (Russian is the only language in the world that has a term for absolutely all security and law enforcement people, notes Kryshtanovskaya: “Even in the West the term is used without translation – just siloviki”), their motives don’t differ from the motives of any person striving for power. “Perhaps, there may even be some idealists among men from security structures who want what is the best for the country. Still, most of them want something for themselves.”

The current merger of the siloviki with the state bureaucracy has occurred to their mutual satisfaction: “They were summoned and came.” The bureaucracy “wanted to see a silovik as head of the state and did so.”

Most likely, this situation will pertain for long. In the latest ranking of influence of Russian politicians Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has been ranked 3rd – following the president and the prime minister, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Since Ivanov is known as a potential successor to Vladimir Putin, and the time for choosing the successor is coming up, the increase of Ivanov’s standing in the bureaucracy is quite a significant development.”

Thus, it appears that siloviki may hope to gain further victories in the immediate future.

However, stresses Olga Kryshtanovskaya, any state, even the most democratic one, needs security structures. “They are pillars of any regime.” That is not the problem, however.

“If siloviki handle security issues – this is normal; it’s their profession. However, if siloviki are in charge of the economy, arts, culture, the media, even elections – this is really dangerous.”

If a “normal” president had came to power in our country, the first thing to do would be to banish all siloviki from “non-profile” spheres, from arms trade as a particular branch of economy and also “all monopolies – RAO Unified Energy Systems, Russian Railways, Russian Space Agency, communications and telecommunications enterprises.”

Not to mention, accentuates the author, that it would be much better for society if computer technicians, rather than siloviki were in control of Vybory system of voting.

“There should certainly be security structures, powerful, but controllable by society, handling their direct duties.”

Might this herald a time when planes, theaters, residential buildings and bus stops no longer explode, and August will cease to be called the “dark month” in Russia?