Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Moscow's bloody metro bombings

E!Sharp, 8th June 2010 20:30

Until March 29 2010, the blackest year in modern Russian history, 2004, seemed mercifully unique. It was a year that saw two suicide attacks on the Moscow metro, the bloody Beslan school siege and two passenger planes destroyed in mid-air by “black widow” suicide bombers.

It was, in short, a spectacularly appalling year. Yet after that bloodshed came silence, of a sort. True, a nasty low-level war continued to rage along Russia’s southern flank, the north Caucasus. But that was one thousand miles distant from the Russian capital and it seemed, for many, like another world.

Russians, they will tell you themselves, have long since mastered the art of mentally switching off whenever a newsreader mentions the Caucasus.

But the events of March 29 were impossible to ignore. When two women blew themselves up on the Moscow metro during morning rush hour, collective and selective self-denial was simply no longer an option. Suddenly, once again, the north Caucasus was everyone’s problem.

The attack left forty people dead and raised fears of a fresh terror campaign. It also triggered a bout of typically robust rhetoric from Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, who spoke of scraping terrorists from the bottom of the sewers. A hunt was launched for the widows or female relatives of dead Islamist terrorists who might be the next “black widows”. Predictably, there was also a massive security crackdown.

Yet there were signs too of a new approach to what for Russia is a centuries-old problem. Earlier this year, President Dmitry Medvedev appointed a senior politician to try to tackle the roots of the problem – crushing poverty, unemployment and hopelessness. Such scars have made the north Caucasus a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist radicals and eradicating those problems is clearly not an overnight job. But attempting to do so is at least a start. It is also a well-overdue recognition of the fact that the north Caucasus’ problems cannot be solved by force alone.

Muscovites, the bombings reminded me, are a tough bunch. Within hours of the blasts, the Moscow metro was working again like clockwork. In the days and weeks that followed it was not as full as usual but it was still busy. I was struck by people’s defiance and mutual respect. Moscow can sometimes seem like a cold, unfriendly place where people are more likely to snarl at one another than exchange a smile. Yet on the very same day as the bombs went off people began to buy flowers and candles and lay them at makeshift memorial sites in the metro. It seemed all the more poignant when I learnt that many Muscovites believed the terrorists would strike again within days. As it happened, they did. Only this time the suicide bombing was in the north Caucasus itself. The rare show of collective emotion reminded me that Russians, unlike many Europeans, have two facades – a public one for strangers that betrays little emotion, and a private one for friends which is often warm and welcoming. This was a rare occasion where the Russians understandably let their collective mask slip.

A little later, I found myself some two thousand miles to the south of Moscow in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan watching a coup d’état unfold. In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, there was a palpable sense of desperation borne of poverty and despair. Teenage boys rummaged among the burnt-out ruins of government buildings, foraging for loot and the trophies of a bloody uprising that left at least 80 people dead. Nobody, unsurprisingly, had a good word to say about the man they had deposed, an archetypal central Asian tyrant who enriched himself and his family at the expense of his impoverished people. What was striking was that the events, though significant, generated so much international attention. After all, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has made a fortune from poking fun at the obscurity of central Asia and its “Stans”. The reason of course was global power politics or what some have called a replay of the 19th century “Great Game” when Britain and Russia vied for supremacy in central Asia. This time though the players are different: Russia, the United States and China.

Just outside Bishkek, I visited a Russian air base bristling with Sukhoi fighter jets and bombers and saw the new Great Game up close. For a few minutes, surrounded by cafes called “Russia” and leather-jacketed Russian pilots buying vodka, it seemed like I was back in the “motherland”. As I flew out from Bishkek’s international airport, I saw another “interested party” – at least a dozen giant US transport planes ferrying troops and equipment to nearby Afghanistan. As the new leaders of Kyrgyzstan try to rebuild their shattered country it seems they are unlikely to be short of international friends. The question is though, can they break what seems to be a vicious cycle and use their international “popularity” to pull their people out of poverty rather than merely lining their own pockets.