Terrorists strike Moscow despite Putin promises of order

There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for the attack, which killed 35 people and injured 86, 40 of them critically.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 24, 2011; 7:42 PM

MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin's years in power have been marked by a series of terrorist acts that have given him the latitude to acquire ever-tighter control over Russia, all in the name of security and stability.

Monday's explosion in a crowded hall at Moscow's busiest airport reminded Russians, once again, that they have neither. With regions of the North Caucasus rife with bitterness and racial tensions growing in Moscow and elsewhere, ordinary people were afraid, and there was little reason to hope an end to the violence was near.

"Russia is doomed to terrorism on a broader scale," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, "and it will increase with every passing year."

The average Russian pays little attention to regular acts of terrorism in the Caucasus, where bombs explode in markets, police cars are bombed and hostages are taken. Yet those acts reveal grievances not easily forgotten and very much in danger of erupting in greater violence.

Two civil wars in Chechnya have left a legacy of hatred and longing for revenge among its largely Muslim population, which angers and frightens ethnic Russians. In December, Russian nationalists marched through Moscow, raging against Caucasians after a soccer fan was killed in a fight with migrants from the North Caucasus.

The repeated attacks have occurred despite repeated promises and crackdowns from a Russian government that has appeared inept at dealing with underlying causes.

Until the fall of 1999, Putin, then prime minister, was a somewhat colorless official who generated little political excitement. That September, a nine-story Moscow apartment building blew up early on a Monday morning, killing 94 people. Four days later, another building blew up, killing 130. Yet another explosion in a smaller town brought the toll to 300 deaths.

In response, Putin vowed to restore order, set off a war against Chechnya, succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president and became enormously popular.

In 2002, heavily armed Chechens took over a Moscow theater and held an audience of 800 hostage. After a rescue but 170 deaths, authorities clamped down on independent television. In 2004, militants took a school hostage in Beslan, where 330 people died. After that, Putin declared that governors would be appointed rather than elected, which he explained as a necessary move to curb terrorism.

Yet small- and large-scale terrorism has continued in the Caucasus and in Moscow, where last March two suicide explosions within half an hour of each other killed 40 people.

A small circle of Russians complains that police and security services have concentrated their efforts on preserving the security - and assets - of officialdom rather than pursue the gritty police work of protecting the public. Murders and attacks on journalists and other public figures are rarely solved. They wonder what crackdown will come after the Domodedovo Airport attack.

"There is so much suppressed animosity," Shevtsova said. "God knows, maybe this time it is a Russian nationalist."

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