Having vowed to flush Russia’s terrorists out of the outhouse 11 years ago, Vladimir Putin is now promising to “scrape them off the bottom of the sewer”. But this is no longer 1999: Russia has changed (and Putin has changed it). After more than a decade of rhetoric, people will eventually want results.
In Russia, as in the United States after 9/11, there has been a certain willingness to trade freedom and constitutionalism for security. Atrocities in Moscow and elsewhere excused a war, the violation of civil rights of Russian citizens, the evisceration of the independent media and the flattening of political competition. But the violence in the Northern Caucasus waxes rather than wanes and, as this week’s bombings of the Moscow metro reminded us, the battlefield remains Russian territory – all of Russian territory.
It is too early for there to be any fresh, post-attack opinion polls, but there is no reason to believe that the attacks will have significantly damaged the popularity of Putin or his partner, President Dmitri Medvedev. Their popularity has never been based strictly on their achievements. They are symbols, and very fortunate symbols at that: to them much is given, but from them little is expected.
In ordinary political life, low expectations are an autocrat’s friend. But in a crisis, they can be a dilemma. The relative calm with which Muscovites received news of the attacks, once they had ascertained that their loved ones were unscathed, belies something more than stoicism. Russians are afraid – just look at the numbers of people, nowhere near the attacks at the time, who have called into psychological help hotlines – but they are resigned. Just as they know that their government has little interest in their economic wellbeing, so have they come to believe that the state has little interest in their safety. The raid of the school in Beslan in 2004, in which government forces contributed to the deaths of 334 hostages, proved that beyond a doubt.
While such attitudes have freed the government’s hands in the past, making possible many of the anti-democratic changes the country has seen over the past decade, they may paradoxically be limiting the government’s room for maneuver now. Russia’s chattering classes are immersed in speculation about what Putin and Medvedev have up their sleeve. Further political repression? Strengthening (rather than reforming) the security services? Sacking Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov?
The possibilities are endless, but in the eyes of ordinary Russians they are also mostly pointless. Eleven years of tightening the screws has not made Russians safer. Citizens will easily tolerate any number of shakeups within the ruling elite, but anything that begins to impinge on their comfort – physical or psychological – is likely to be resisted.
Any proposed tradeoff will have to carry a convincing promise of results, but Russians are not in a mood to be convinced. Suspicion that the security services, rather than Chechen terrorists, were behind the apartment building bombings in 1999, has never quite gone away. And now the talk on the streets – easily overheard both by myself and by numerous journalists throughout the city – is that, while it’s difficult to believe that the government planted this week’s explosives, it seems plausible that the authorities knew they were coming and allowed them to happen. Russians’ tolerance for strong-handed leaders is topped only by their predilection for conspiracy theories.
With little room or appetite for further authoritarian “reform”, where does that leave Putin and Medvedev? Returning to the angry rhetoric of 1999, as Putin did with his sewer statement, will only remind people how utterly the Kremlin has failed to root out terrorism. Medvedev was on a more productive track when he pointed – as he has done repeatedly – to the social, economic and political backwardness in the Caucasus that gives rise both to radical sentiments and people willing to turn themselves into projectiles. But it is unclear whether the government has the political, financial, administrative and intellectual wherewithal to create real change in one of the most difficult regions of the world.
That leaves Russia’s leaders with really only one easy option (and this is a bunch that generally prefers easy options): make it go away. They control the television and much of the print media, where the vast majority of Russians get their news. They also control the streets, where extra police presence – which, in other contexts, might serve to reassure citizens, but also reminds them of the danger – has been kept to a minimum. Even the planned memorials to the victims are being kept underground, in the metro stations where the attacks occurred.
The Kremlin has evidently decided that since it cannot benefit from a conversation about what to do next, it’s best to avoid a conversation altogether. That is probably correct, in the short term. But in the longer run, if the terrorists strike again, if the danger remains real, a public debate will begin anyway. When that happens, the Kremlin will no longer be a participant in the conversation: rather, it will become the object of debate, and no amount of rhetoric will help. That is what happens when leaders fail to lead.