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Analysis & Opinion
31.03.10 Navigating Rumorville
By Roland Oliphant

Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader who in February had threatened to bring “the war to Russian homes,” appeared to have claimed responsibility for Monday’s double suicide bombing of Moscow’s Metro system late Wednesday. In a video released on Youtube and the rebel KavkazCenter Website he said the attacks had been carried out on his orders in revenge for an FSB operation on February 11. That will probably put to rest the wilder speculation circulating about the attacks, but it won’t assuage growing criticism of the authorities’ response.

The official day of mourning was on Tuesday, but on Wednesday the stream of mourners at Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations had not abated; the metro itself is running and in use, but it is still noticeably less crowded than usual; taxi drivers, demonized for charging thousands of rubles for a ride in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, are now being feted for giving free rides to those afraid of using the metro. Meanwhile, the capital’s newspapers are still dominated by Monday’s events – the Wednesday edition of the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily devoted ten pages to the subject.

Amongst all the residual shock is a growing sense of anger at the security services for failing to stop the attacks; at the Moscow authorities for not closing the metro after the first attack; at the state-owned central television channels that did not interrupt their normal programming for hours after the attacks; and at the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev for failing to end the North Caucasus insurgency that is almost universally assumed to have spawned the attackers.

Veteran North Caucasus correspondent Vadim Rechkalov summarized the charge sheet in a 1,200 word salvo on the pages of the well-connected Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid. “Between the first and second bombings, the authorities had 40 minutes to try and save more people. No such attempt was made,” he wrote. He went on to attack the “indifference of the special services toward those they are meant to protect,” the main television channels for “waiting for a signal from above” and “forgetting how to cover things properly,” before concluding that “the main lesson Russians should draw from this tragedy is that the authorities look after themselves, and the people look after themselves.”

Rechkalov himself stopped short of blaming the authorities for anything more than callous incompetence, but signed off his column with a warning to the authorities that they risked giving credence to versions of events “like those of [Alexander] Litvinenko and [Boris] Berezovsky after the 1999 house bombings.” In other words, that Putin and the FSB organized the bombings for political purposes.

But exactly that version of events – amongst others – is already circulating on the Internet. “So far, everything indicates that the death of large numbers of people was not the main goal,” argued one blogger posting before Umarov’s apparent claim of responsibility. “All this only confirms suspicions that it was not a terrorist attack by terrorists, but a simulated terrorist attack to justify future actions of our ‘elected’ president-prime minister.”

“The sense in the forums is, ‘the 2012 election campaign just started,’” said one forum user who asked to remain anonymous. The 1999 apartment blasts preceded Putin’s first election as president. He was reelected in 2004, the year the last suicide bombing campaign in the capital peaked and ended.

Most of the conspiracy theories circulating on the Web revolve around the choice of target. Why take the trouble to travel in a wagon all the way from Yugo Zapadnaya (or Sportivnaya, or, according to a bus driver quoted by Interfax late Wednesday, Vorobyovy Gory) only to explode oneself not in a tunnel, where the blast would have killed more, where help for the injured would have been delayed, and where to the devastation in the carriage might have been added the carnage of collision with an oncoming train? After all, that’s what the last suicide bomber to strike inside the metro did in February of 2004 – “extremely effective from the point of view of maximizing casualties,” as Maksim Kononenko, a government-friendly commentator, put it on the Internet site Vzglyad.

The answer was obvious to many bloggers: there were no suicide belts and certainly no deluded, drugged and/or vengeful young women wearing them (the rumors of “suicide belts” have been further confused by a report in Kommersant that the explosives were carried in the women’s “hand bags”). Rather, the bombs were exploded remotely, by mobile phone – for while there is no mobile signal in the underground tunnels, “at both stations there is perfect mobile communication,” noted Rechkalov. And “at both stations, there are pillars behind which a triggerman with a phone could take refuge from both the force of the blast and CCTV cameras.”

It’s always possible. Though, as both Kononenko and Rechkalov both pointed out, it seems increasingly unlikely, since the authorities have produced footage of the “suicide bombers” entering the metro at Yugo Zapadnaya, their bodies have been stitched together (and grainy pictures of their dismembered heads circulated on the Russian Internet and were published in the tabloids), and literally dozens of witnesses can testify that one of their fellow passengers blew herself up. The latest video from KavkazCenter adds to that weight of evidence.

Meanwhile, the “Berezovsky and Litvinenko” theory has not been confined to the Internet. Early Wednesday it even seemed that Umarov himself was pushing it, when the Russian language Georgian TV Channel First Caucasian reported the emergence of a recording of his voice denying involvement in the atrocity and explicitly blaming “the Russian Special Services.” That followed an equally bizarre suggestion in an interview with Kommersant by Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, that the Georgian Special Services might have been involved.

Earlier, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, the speaker of the Chechen Parliament (a body, it should be said, that exists to rubber stamp the decisions of Ramzan Kadyrov, whose rule has failed to quell the insurgency that apparently produced the bombs on Monday), had said Tuesday that: “A strategically protected object like the metro should be safe. And if anything was taken there it is due either to the negligence of the special services, or to the complicity of metro workers, or to the assistance of law enforcement officers.”

That’s disingenuous, to put it politely. The truth is that like all public transport systems, the Moscow metro is almost impossible to secure without exhaustive searches of passengers at every station. But to be fair, Abdurakhmanov was speaking in response to the immediate assumption in the press and elsewhere of Chechen guilt – an assumption which, he rightly pointed out, both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had so far avoided in their public statements.

Those two have instead confined themselves to repeating variations of Putin’s 1999 line about wiping out terrorists, but have not said where they intended to look for them – in the toilet or elsewhere. Putin this time spoke about “dragging them from the sewers.” Medvedev mentioned “grinding them to dust.”

And it’s this belligerence, more than any wild conspiracy theory, which may cost the two leaders respect. For as Rechkalov pointed out, the two suicide bombers represent a defeat for the authorities’ strategy. “I have a sense of dej? vu, I seem to recall there was something about a toilet,” wrote another anonymous blogger. “And that is what they said in the first Chechen War, and the second.”
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