MOSCOW, Sept. 17 -- A thousand rubles, or about $34, was enough to bribe an airline agent to put a Chechen woman on board a flight just before takeoff, according to Russian investigators. The agent took the cash, and on a ticket the Chechen held for another flight simply scrawled, "Admit on board Flight 1047."
The woman was admitted onto the flight, while a companion boarded another plane leaving Moscow's Domodedovo Airport the same evening. Hours later, both planes exploded in midair almost simultaneously, killing all 90 people aboard.
In this file photo, workers search the crash site of one of the planes downed in late August by Chechen bombers, who bribed their way onto the flights.
(Misha Japaridze -- AP)
A string of procedural breakdowns that let the two female suicide bombers board the planes last month brought home how deeply bribery, extortion and negligence are ingrained in Russia's security system. Many Russians consider their law enforcement authorities to be as crooked as the criminals they are supposed to catch.
Increasingly, the Chechen radicals who are targeting Russian civilians in a campaign to win independence for their southern province have learned to exploit that weakness to devastating effect. President Vladimir Putin's failure to curb corruption in the security system, according to analysts and law enforcement veterans, has left the country vulnerable to more attacks and handicapped in its fight against the bombers and hostage takers who often slip someone a few rubles so they can operate with impunity.
"This has become the normal way of doing business in Russia," said Pavel Chikov, a leader of a group called Public Verdict, which fights police abuses and corruption. "It's not seen as weird behavior when someone gives bribes or takes bribes. That's normal."
Georgi Satarov, head of the Indem public policy analysis institute and an aide to Boris Yeltsin when he was Russia's president, said his group's annual survey of corruption found that the police were "absolutely corrupt and consequently absolutely not effective."
A History of Bribery
The plane bombers were hardly the first terrorists in Russia who have succeeded in part through under-the-table payoffs, lax security or the assistance of law enforcement agents. The band of guerrillas who stormed a school in the southern town of Beslan this month picked up a police officer along the way who helped them get through checkpoints, authorities have said. In the bloody denouement of the crisis, 338 children and adults were killed.
Authorities have acknowledged that a similar group of gunmen paid off police in 2002 as they transported a virtual armory of assault rifles, hand grenades and explosives all the way from the south to Moscow, where they seized a theater filled with patrons. The subsequent standoff left 129 hostages dead. "They admitted it," Satarov said. "But it was two years ago, and nothing has been done."
And it has been nine years since Shamil Basayev, the Chechen guerrilla leader, led an assault force that took over a hospital with more than 1,000 people in the southern city of Budennovsk. That attack ended with more than 100 civilian deaths. Basayev later told an interviewer that he had gotten past police road stops with $10,000 in bribes and had intended to go all the way to Moscow but stopped in Budennovsk because he ran out of money.
"I know Russia," he was quoted as saying in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta in 1996. "There are no problems. If you have good money, any cop will let you go, even from the scene of a crime -- provided you get caught, that is." Basayev later took credit for the theater siege, and he allegedly wrote a message on the Internet on Friday asserting responsibility for the Beslan school massacre.
President Putin has conceded that corruption in the security agencies has played a direct role in the string of terror attacks in Russia that have killed more than 1,000 people in the past two years. "We have let corruption affect the judicial and law enforcement sphere," he said in an address to the nation after the Beslan crisis.
In a speech Monday, Putin vowed to toughen punishment for "official crimes which at first sight look insignificant" but turn out to have "grave consequences." As an example, he cited an illegally granted passport eventually used by terrorists. "Sanctions," he said, "should be adequate to the effects of that crime."
But in the two weeks since the school massacre, Putin has offered no concrete plans for combating corruption, focusing instead on consolidating his political power by eliminating the election of governors and independent members of parliament.
Few Russians believe that Putin has done much to halt abuses after nearly five years in office, according to public opinion polls. Asked last fall about corruption and thievery among the country's leadership, 68 percent of those responding to a survey said it had stayed the same or grown worse during Putin's tenure, while 22 percent thought it had declined, according to the independent Yuri Levada Analytical Center.