New Internationalist

Putin’s Terror Card

Issue 376

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Rights & Freedoms / RUSSIA UNDER SIEGE

Putin’s terror card
Russia's political boss has built his career on fighting
terrorism and Chechen nationalism. Fred Weir
counts the cost in lost freedoms.

Russia is slipping back into a pattern of governance that looks a lot like Soviet-style déjà vu to anyone brought up during the Cold War. A new strong man in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin, is tightening his grip upon society, cracking down on independent civic organizations, muzzling the press, cancelling elections and seeking to impose Russia’s will upon neighbouring countries. Yet there is no sign of the communist ideology that was used to justify the former USSR’s harsh social regimentation and authoritarian system. Putin insists, indeed, that he is trying to build Russian democracy, but argues for strengthening the state and greater powers for the security forces. The reason has a familiar ring for even the youngest readers – the fight against terrorism.

That threat is real. During the past five years, roughly the period Putin has been in power, Russia has experienced a string of horrific terrorist attacks against civilians, each more deadly than the last. In every case the Kremlin has responded with sweeping measures to claw back civic freedoms and human rights. Putin has justified such measures with dire warnings that Russia’s very survival is at stake. Following last September’s terrorist siege of a school in Beslan, southern Russia, which killed hundreds of children, Putin cancelled direct elections for governors in Russia’s 89 regions, tightened restrictions on domestic movements by citizens, and declared a state of semi-emergency in the troubled north Caucasus zone.

The ‘disappeared’ of Chechnya: Chechen women search for their menfolk lost in the occupation. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures
The 'disappeared' of Chechnya: Chechen women search for their menfolk lost in the occupation. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures

‘Russia has been too weak,’ Putin said in a TV address following the Beslan tragedy. ‘And the weak get beaten.’

Though independent social polling has been drastically curbed, the surveys that are available appear to show most Russians in agreement with Putin’s strong-armed approach. The President’s personal approval rating has seldom fallen below 70 per cent in the past five years. Other polls suggest that majorities favour press censorship, expanded police rights of search and seizure, and restoring the Soviet-era ‘block committees’ of neighbourhood vigilantes and police informer networks. But even officially backed opinion surveys show that over half of Russians oppose Putin’s decision to end elections for local governors, and over 40 per cent do not believe there can be a ‘forceful solution’ to the decade-old conflict in separatist Chechnya, the key source of Russia’s terrorist problem.

‘There is no doubt that terrorism has been a major spur in the public’s yearning for a strong hand to bring order,’ says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. ‘People see the loss of freedom as a tax that has to be paid for security. And it’s clear that, after the traumas that have occurred, Russians are very willing to pay that price.’

But terrorism has also been a handy excuse for Putin, a former KGB agent who came to office pledging to reverse Russia’s decline on the world stage, restore social order, rebuild the armed forces and modernize the rusting Soviet-era economy.

‘The connection between terrorism and Putin’s policies is a bit artificial,’ says Sergei Mikheyev, an expert with the Centre for Political Technologies, a Moscow thinktank. ‘The main goal is to end the post-Soviet deterioration of Russia, to strengthen the state in order to restore our lost economic, scientific and geopolitical positions. If you want to call that authoritarianism, OK, then these authoritarian trends would have appeared even without terrorism.’

In the autumn of 1999, when Putin was Prime Minister and heir apparent of the unpopular and enfeebled Boris Yeltsin, Russia was shaken by a series of night-time apartment blasts that killed almost 300 people in their sleep, in Moscow and two other cities. The attacks were blamed on Chechen rebels – although the perpetrators have never been clearly identified – and, under the personal supervision of Putin, Russian troops invaded Chechnya for the second time in less than a decade.


Short term gain
The war proved immensely popular. Within a few months Russian forces had occupied most of the tiny, mainly Muslim republic, reversing the humiliating defeat that forced Moscow out of Chechnya in the mid-1990s. On the strength of this victory, a pro-Putin political party created just a few months earlier swept parliamentary elections, and Putin himself won the presidency in a March 2000 landslide.

But the second Chechen war, now well into its sixth year, has mutated into a savage counter-insurgency struggle, in which human rights monitors have accused Russia of committing mass atrocities against Chechen civilians and maintaining a brutal occupation regime in the tiny republic. At least one wing of Chechen rebels, led by the field commander Shamil Basayev, has turned increasingly to vicious terrorist reprisals against Russian civilians. Over the past five years a wave of Chechen suicide bombers have killed well over 1,000 people on trains, in metro stations, at a rock concert and on two downed airliners; while hundreds more have died in a couple of tragic mass hostage-takings – at a Moscow theatre in 2002 and at the Beslan school last September.

Putin has moved to restore state control over Russia’s freewheeling media, though he has shunned overt Soviet-style methods. The independent NTV network was taken over by the state-owned company Gazprom in a ‘commercial dispute’ while two smaller networks were pulled from the air by the Press Ministry. Critical newspapers, magazines and media personalities gradually disappeared from circulation, while mainstream news coverage grew increasingly uniform and wedded to the Kremlin line. The process of homogenizing Russia’s media is still under way.

‘Our TV has become a mouthpiece for the authorities, as it was in Soviet times,’ says Yevgenia Albats, a liberal journalist who works at Russia’s last independent radio station, Ekho Moskvi. ‘There is still a bit of space for criticism on the fringes of the media, but it is getting more and more difficult all the time.’

It is not exactly clear how the straitjacketing of Russia’s media aids the fight against terrorism, though the Kremlin has made the case that it does. In October 2002, after Russian security forces stormed a downtown Moscow theatre where Chechen terrorists were holding 800 hostages – 129 people died from the effects of a toxic gas used by the police – Putin publicly slammed the NTV network for its live coverage of the assault, which allegedly ‘aided the terrorists’. The director of NTV, Boris Jordan, was subsequently fired and replaced with a former Kremlin official. Last year the popular editor of the daily Izvestia, Rem Shakhirov, was sacked after the Kremlin accused him of ‘sensationalizing’ the Beslan tragedy in his paper.

Our TV has become a mouthpiece for the authorities, as it was in Soviet times

Under Putin the Russian state has used its resources, its near-total media control and its power to intimidate, to sideline opposition parties and their financial backers. The ongoing legal assault against Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his company, Yukos, began after authorities accused the entrepreneur of supporting opposition newspapers, human rights groups and the small liberal party Yabloko. Khodorkovsky faces 10 years in prison for his alleged role in illegal privatizations in the wild 1990s. Yukos has been bankrupted, dismembered and seems like it will soon be swallowed by the state-controlled giant Gazprom. Meanwhile, other Russian ‘oligarchs’ who gained fabulous wealth by murky means, face no legal problems as long as they toe the Kremlin line and contribute to the pro-Putin United Russia party.

A wave of spy trials, initiated by Russia’s FSB security service, has resulted in harsh convictions for a handful of critical journalists, environmentalists, scientists and researchers. Critics say these few cases have been orchestrated to set an example for others.

‘The message is: be careful what subjects you get involved with, watch what you say to foreigners,’ says Masha Lipman, a former journalist who now works as a researcher with the Carnegie Centre in Moscow. ‘It’s a means of intimidating everyone without resorting to mass repressions.’

The Putin system, which the Kremlin describes as ‘managed democracy’ and critics slam as ‘dictatorship’, has enjoyed notable successes. Russia’s economy, which shrank by half during the 1990s, has grown by at least six per cent for each of the past five years. Moscow’s standing on the global stage has improved, especially after Putin joined President George W Bush as a partner in the global anti-terrorism coalition in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US. The pro-Kremlin United Russia Party won a two-thirds majority in the December 2003 parliamentary elections, while support for the once-mighty Russian Communist Party was halved and two small liberal parties were excluded from Parliament altogether. Three months later Putin, facing not a single well-known challenger, swept to re-election with 71 per cent of the popular vote.


Spreading repression
In the wake of Beslan, Putin sent several sweeping new ‘anti-terrorist’ laws to Parliament, most of which have already been passed by the obedient pro-Kremlin majority. In addition to the law rescinding gubernatorial elections, Parliament lifted the Yeltsin-era ban on civil servants joining political parties – leading to a stampede of top officials joining the United Russia Party. Some experts fear the return of a Soviet-style one-party state.

‘As soon as bureaucrats see that a tightly centralized power system is returning in force in Russia, there is no doubt they will rush to join the party of power,’ says Sergei Kolmakov, vice-president of the independent Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. ‘When the bureaucratic chain of command becomes a single party, that party will dominate the state and the nation. People from all sections of the élite will also want to join, to get closer to the sources of power.’

Another law makes it difficult for non-governmental organizations to obtain funding from abroad, and requires them to file detailed reports on how they spend any foreign grant money they do manage to get. Yet another Kremlin-backed draft law will introduce legal punishments for foreign residents of Russia, including journalists, who ‘defame Russia’s image’ abroad. An anti-terrorist bill currently before Parliament will empower authorities to impose a 60-day state of emergency in any Russian region merely on the suspicion that a terrorist act is being planned.

‘Perhaps in a free society the threat of terrorism can lead to some restrictions on people’s rights,’ says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based security expert. ‘At least, I know this debate rages in other countries. But what we see taking place here in Russia is not a few restrictions, but the wholesale liquidation of democracy and freedom.’

But the persistence of terrorism, corruption and official bungling under Putin may mean that Russians are giving up their freedoms in exchange for supposed benefits that will never materialize.

‘The weakening of independent institutions by the Kremlin is undermining the only agencies that can ensure that government does its job properly,’ says Lipman. She believes that even the fight against terrorism will stumble in a society where grassroots initiative is paralyzed. ‘Without a free press, independent courts, an active parliament, the authorities get no feedback and there is no accountability. History shows that authoritarian systems lead to bad decision-making, breakdown and collapse.’

Fred Weir [image, unknown] Fred Weir is a correspondent based in Moscow. He writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor.

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