Today’s terror bombing in Moscow reveals, yet again, that Islamic terrorism remains a world-wide threat. Yes, the Chechen terror in Russia has its unique history and causes, but it shares ideological and operational similarities to and connections with the broader international Islamic terror movement. The targeting of innocent civilians is brutal and wrong, and my sympathies are with those killed, those maimed, and those terrorized.
The Economist’s story expresses concerns–and they are not the first to do so–that this episode will be used to justify an expansion of state repression:
Big terrorist attacks have in the past been used by the Kremlin to justify tightening its grip on power and curbing the opposition. The second war in Chechnya, in 2000, which helped to propel Mr Putin into his presidency, was accompanied by a move to bring Russian television under Kremlin control. In 2004, after the school siege in Beslan, in North Ossetia, Mr Putin scrapped regional elections. It would be unfortunate if the Kremlin, rather than overhauling its security agencies and reviewing its north Caucasus policy, opts to act in similar fashion now.
This is no doubt possible. Indeed, according to Oleg Kozlovsky, two narratives have dominated the immediate aftermath, one of which goes far beyond the Economist’s concerns:
It is too early to say who organized this terrorist attack. Russian bloggers discuss mainly two versions: Chechen rebels and the state security services. However weird it may sound, the latter version is at least as popular as the former one. In any case, the police and FSB were so corrupted and so busy fighting the opposition that they didn’t find time for the terrorists. By the way, chief of Moscow police was going to spend this day in Moscow City Duma promoting a bill introducing imprisonment for participants of banned peaceful rallies. He must have considered them the biggest danger for Moscow citizens. No surprise terrorists feel less restricted in Moscow than human rights activists.
Whoever organized this attack, the government will surely try to use this tragedy to further “tighten the screws” and secure their own power–the way they did after Beslan hostage crisis in 2004. The only question is what exactly they are going to do.
My thoughts run in a slightly different direction: will the inability of the current government ever lead to more widespread discontent with the competence of the government?; a reduction in the willingness to acquiesce to a strangulation of civil liberties in part justified as a necessary component of a war against terror emanating from the Caucasus that appears to be failing on its own term? This is just the latest in a series of spectacular Chechen attacks on Putin’s watch (Nord Ost, Beslan, the recent bombing of the Moscow-St. Petersburg train, and now the Moscow Metro). One part of the alleged bargain between Putin and the populace is that the former surrender their political voice and civil rights, and the former protects them. When does the tipping point come when people decide that Putin has not lived up to his end of the deal?
Another part of the alleged bargain is that Putin provides prosperity. I noted in my post last week that Putin’s tone in his screed directed against the United States in Hillary!’s presence betrayed a certain degree of panic over the economic situation. This article from Reuters provides further color that reinforces this perception:
Now leading the nation as its prime minister after completing the maximum two terms as president, Putin often plays a far more visible role than President Dmitry Medvedev in telling Russia’s business leaders what they are expected to contribute to the economy.
“I’m asking you for a third time, when are you going to sign this contract, do you not hear me?” Putin lashed out at deputy chief of gas monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM) Alexander Ananenkov, an elderly man wearing a hearing aid, at a meeting last December. [What a guy! Browbeating old deaf men. How's that for alpha male chimp behavior, S/O?]
. . . .
Another of Putin’s projects is the diversification of Russia’s energy export supply routes which, apart from their geopolitical role, will also swell the investment plans of state monopolies such as Gazprom and Transneft.
The multi-billion projects serve as growth drivers as they translate into orders of pipes, turbines and other equipment.
“I was recently at a (Russian) electrical transformers factory. A remarkable enterprise, new, very beautiful, modern. So why are you importing 70 percent of all transformers?” Putin asked the head of the Federal Grid Company, Oleg Budargin.
HEAT ECONOMY UP
Most of Putin’s foreign visits are related either to energy diplomacy or the lobbying of deals on behalf of Russian defense or nuclear power firms.
During his March visit to India, Putin signed deals worth $10 billion including to build up to 16 nuclear reactors, saying Russia wants to control a quarter of the global nuclear power market.
Putin is also keen to support construction which achieved double-digit growth during the oil boom years and where asset price bubbles had formed before the crisis hit.
“We need to heat up this sector a little bit, although I am not talking about overheating,” Putin said of the construction industry, where he plans to introduce a government-backed mortgage scheme with subsidised interest rates for home buyers.
So, apparently Goldilocks is going bald: Putin doesn’t want housing too hot or not hot enough; he wants it JUST right. Good luck with that.
Putin’s frenetic activity, his browbeating of some executives, and his pleading before foreigners on the behalf of others, does not exactly scream confidence in Russia’s economic prospects. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite, and Putin is responding in the only way that a former Soviet appartchik knows how: to issue a blizzard of commands. The fact that these commands will almost certainly not lead to a substantial economic improvement, and are likely in fact to prove counterproductive, will eventually reveal that Putin is rather impotent. That is poison to an authoritarian leader.
The economy and domestic safety are two of the fundamental plinths of the Putinist bargain. Both look increasingly shaky, although Putin’s popularity has not yet exhibited any dramatic weakening. My question is: how long can that last when he does not deliver on his side of the bargain? My conjecture is that fear of the answer to that question will lead to even more rigorous efforts to atomize society and control public expression (including over the internet) to prevent the formation of a critical mass of people saying that the emperor has no clothes.
* I was interested to see that the Obama administration issued a statement on the bombing that used the term “terror” or “terrorism” more than once. Does that mean that the phrase “man caused disaster” (in Janet Napolitano’s artless prose) is no longer operative? That there is actually such a thing as terrorism?