Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 17:04 UK

Political fallout of Moscow's Metro bombings

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Russian Prime Minister Valdimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow
Mr Putin said the perpetrators would be "scraped from the sewers"

As Russia grapples with the security crisis triggered by the Moscow bombings, top political figures find themselves no longer immune from the local media's distrust and criticism.

Within hours of Monday's suicide bombings, the Moscow Metro stations affected were back in service.

By the evening, at the Lubyanka station where the first bomb was detonated, the only remaining scar from the carnage was a series of small chips in the marble and tiled walls lining the platform.

On the surface, Russia seems to be taking these attacks in its stride. But underneath, a debate simmers about what this security crisis means for the country.

With no claim of responsibility, the assumption has been that this is the work of Chechen militants and their allies in the North Caucasus. That fits into the pattern of terrorist attacks on Moscow and elsewhere in Russia over the past decade.

Xenophobia fears

At an official level the government's rhetoric has been stern and unrelenting.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said "the terrorists will be obliterated", adding it was a matter of honour for Russian law enforcement officers to "scrape" the perpetrators "from the sewers".

His words were echoed by President Dmitry Medvedev, who said they were "animals" and he had no doubt "we'll find them and wipe out all of them".

In Canada, at the G8 foreign ministers' meeting, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called for international backing to fight what he called a global terrorist network.

Vladimir Putin has said before that he'll liquidate the terrorists, but the people of Moscow feel no safer
Russian business paper, Vedomosti

These are resonant phrases to try to reassure ordinary Russians that the authorities will not rest until they have made the country safer. But that is not the conclusion of Russia's written press.

On the internet and in newspapers, analysts tell a different story - of bombastic official rhetoric to conceal past systematic failures.

They also talk of a domestic - not international - terrorist problem that has been allowed to fester through inappropriate and inadequate, heavy-handed policies.

True, President Medvedev has wasted little time in announcing he wants laws amended to improve public transport safety and make counter-terrorism measures more effective.

But that is hardly the root and branch overhaul of the country's security services it seems so many commentators are calling for.

The unspoken refrain runs like an anxious drum beating under the coverage.

'Softly softly approach'

What if this is the start of another sustained campaign of bloodshed to sow fear in the hearts of Russians, which may culminate in some new, terrifying catastrophe, like the Moscow theatre siege of 2002 or the Beslan tragedy of 2004?

Few analysts blame the police force. How is some poor policeman on Metro patrol to recognise would-be suicide bombers from a sea of Moscow commuters?

Some worry that heightened nervousness will fuel xenophobia against the many non-Russians in Moscow from southern republics - the silent army of night-time workers who shovel snow and clear rubbish.

But the loudest condemnation has been for the security services.

President Medvedev lays flowers at Lubyanka metro station in Moscow
Mr Medvedev claimed victory against Chechen insurgents last summer

The main commentator in one of Russia's most outspoken patriotic tabloids, Den, said: "When the head of the federal security services, the FSB, came to see the president about the attacks, why did he not hand in his notice?

"Why indeed did President Medvedev let him over the threshold?"

He added: "The terrorists have made fun of the security services, letting off not one but two bombs in the heart of the capital and under their very nose - the Lubyanka Metro station right by their headquarters."

A columnist in another popular daily, Moscow Komsomolets, was just as damning, saying: "This is about the failure of the security services to intercept terrorist plans, and a failure to stop them carrying out their operations.

"We lack respect for this enemy… better to overestimate them than underestimate them and pretend, as we have until recently, that everything in the Caucasus is calm and peaceful."

Public distrust

This sounds like a sharp dig at President Medvedev, who last summer publicly claimed victory against Chechen insurgents and declared the military campaign over.

But it is also at a deeper level a criticism of Mr Putin, whose first presidential election campaign in the year 2000 was fought on the back of a nationalist revival fuelled by the second Chechen war he had launched six months earlier.

For the next eight years, this determination to counter insurgents in the North Caucasus through brutal force was a hall mark of his presidency, arguably helping to transform and radicalise the insurgency.

A policeman on guard at Moscow's metro
Police have escaped criticism, most of which was aimed at security services

It had seemed President Medvedev was trying to redress this policy. In January, he appointed a new emissary in the Northern Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin, instructing him to put new emphasis on tackling the region's endemic poverty and high youth unemployment.

He hoped this might address some of the grievances that made the region such a fertile breeding ground for militants.

But some are wondering if this "softly softly" approach might now be edged out before making an impact, crushed under the weight of calls for the security forces to clamp-down hard on any perceived threats to national security.

Many commentators think this change of course would be disastrous, but the business paper, Vedemosti, takes the criticism a step further.

It says not only are the security services "falling apart", but Russia's tandem system of government - where authority is uneasily shared between president and prime minister - is unable to grapple with this problem.

"These aren't the first terrorist acts we've faced and no doubt once again they'll have no impact on the security service and its secret but growing budget," the paper says.

People should rely only on themselves, because the government is unable to protect them
Moscow Komsomolets newspaper

"Vladimir Putin has said before that he'll liquidate the terrorists, but the people of Moscow feel no safer."

In any other country, a chorus of criticism like this would surely unnerve the government.

But in Russia, the internet and newspapers may provide a haven for outspoken comment without, it seems, influencing national policy.

It is national television coverage that matters more, and there government control is almost total.

What is not clear, therefore, is whether this public scepticism will feed into any debate at the top of government about whether the answer this time is yet another crack down.

One commentator says terrorism in Russia is an Olympic games issue: if the government cannot keep Moscow safe from suicide bombers, what might this mean for the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi on the doorstep of the North Caucasus?

These days, a national terrorist tragedy no longer prompts the Russian press to rally round the government.

Since the financial crash that played such havoc with the economy a year and a half ago, Russia is no longer as self confident as it once was.

Top political figures - like Mr Putin - are no longer immune from criticism, and public distrust in the government is now widespread.

As one observer gloomily puts it in Moscow Komsomolets, the main lesson to be drawn from this tragedy is that the authorities and people exist separately.

"People should rely only on themselves, because the government is unable to protect them," it concluded.


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