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Drowning everyone but the terrorists: an interview with Boris Nemtsov

Monday’s attacks show that Russia’s counter-terrorist strategy is failing. The bad news for Russia’s leaders is that the public are no longer in the mood for excuses. Mumin Shakirov interviews opposition activist and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. This is an preview of an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, to be published in the coming week.

Mumin Shakirov
26 January 2011

Mumin Shakirov:

How do you think the government has handled its response to the latest, terrible incident in Moscow? 

Boris Nemtsov:

Unfortunately, the government responded in the same way it has always done. It has refused to accept any blame, and attempted to implicate whatever scapegoats it could. In this case, the management at Domodedovo Airport and the local policemen were the fall guys. But the real reason why people died was the complete failure of country’s counter-terrorist strategy.

Nemtsov arrested

In January Boris Nemtsov was sentenced to 15 days in jail after taking part in a demonstration on New Year's Eve.

You only need to look at the way the terrorist threat has developed over the eleven years of Putin’s reign. He began his political career, if you remember, in 1999 with a promise to “drown the terrorists in the outhouse”. As Prime Minister — that is, even before he became president — he was active in using a war in the Caucasus and the bombing of apartment blocks to improve his own popularity and personal rating. He was helped in doing so by the businessman and now sworn enemy Boris Berezovsky.

Now, take a look at the figures. In 2000, the number of terrorist attacks in Russia was 130. By 2009, the figure was 780. This translates to two attacks a day. Of course, most of these incidents took place in the Caucasus, where people are killed on an almost daily basis. But you can’t and shouldn’t forget the attacks on Moscow: in last year alone there were the underground bombings, and the bombing of a Moscow-St Petersburg express train.

For them, priority number one is to protect the assets of the ruling gang. This is a task which sees them spending huge sums of money on aggressive battles with the opposition. All over Russia, thousands and thousands of special policemen are dispatched to round up peaceful opposition activists, shoving them into into z-cars and whisking them away to cells.

Boris Nemtsov

Look again at what happened when Putin became President. He used the Dubrovka theatre siege to impose a regime of total censorship on TV; he went on to destroy NTV, and then TV6. He used the nightmare of Beslan to remove democratic elections of regional governors. In short, he “drowned” everyone apart from the terrorists.

But Putin is finding it more and more difficult to use attacks and terrorism to strengthen his own power. Why? Because thinking Russians have already cottoned on to the fact that this man is ill-equipped to deal with the terror threat.

Mumin Shakirov:

Why is it that the counter-terrorism strategy is failing?

Boris Nemtsov:

The budget of the secret services has grown exponentially over the last ten years. It is now almost 11 times the level it was in 2000, and stands in excess of 35 billion dollars a year.

It is no secret, however, that the secret services has priorities that are not generally shared by the country at large.

For them, priority number one is to protect the assets of the ruling gang. This is a task which sees them spend huge sums of money on aggressive battles with the opposition. All over Russia, thousands and thousands of special policemen are dispatched to round up peaceful opposition activists, shoving them into into z-cars and whisking them away to cells. The same special policemen — alongside KGB agents and other provocateurs — are then sent to harass the lonely pickets that are held to petition the release of illegally arrested activists.

Priority number two, meanwhile, is business, which means organising corporate raiding and protection rackets. The counter-terrorist campaign is something that is limited to words alone. Covert intelligence work is in tatters, and the national republics have been handed over to corrupt clans for them to lease out as they please. 

Mumin Shakirov:

There have been hundreds of terrorist attacks in the last decade, causing many thousands of deaths. Yet Putin’s approval rating has not fallen, indeed he has managed to strengthen his position. What is the secret? 

Boris Nemtsov:

There are two reasons. The first is the highly fortuitous economic conditions he has found himself working with, and namely record prices for oil and gas. Remember that the natural resources sector represents more than half total governmental revenue. It has allowed the regime to support its good self and, more significantly, to increase wages and pensions. The majority of Russians simply do not understand that all this is happening not because of some all-wise stewardship of the economy, but because hydrocarbon profits have allowed the government to cobble together a budget surplus. A lot of people forget that life under Brezhnev was also tolerable for this very reason.

Priority number two, meanwhile, is business, which means organising corporate raiding and protection rackets. The counter-terrorist campaign is something that is limited to words alone.

Boris Nemtsov

The second factor at play is the dumbing-down of the population, achieved primarily with the help of controlled and censored news channels. The brainwashing techniques used would impress Goebbels, who has a very neat Russian equivalent in the person of Vladislav Surkov. They do it better than any of their Soviet predecessors. So the lying, the cynicism, the manipulation of peoples’ minds — all this has had a strong effect.

But the situation is changing. What has Putin managed to do? At the start, he told everyone Russia was facing a worldwide terrorist conspiracy. This was at the time of the theatre siege, Beslan and other such tragedies. For many years he got away with it, imploring people to show solidarity around the national leader. For a long time he was able to use the terrorist attacks as a cynical way of consolidating his power.

Now we are in what we physicists would call a “phase transition to the second order”. People have simply stopped believing him. Putin can’t blame Bin Laden for everything any longer. No one would believe him. He can’t say doesn’t have enough powers at his disposal. No one could believe that.

The good news is that more and more people are thinking for themselves, especially in the cities. These people have come to the conclusion that Putin is very dangerous for their country. They see his main objective as money, property and power. Putin, on the other hand, is afraid that he may loose his property and freedom if he is denied power. And be assured: he will fight tooth and nail to defend both.

Mumin Shakirov:

I read a particularly shocking post on Twitter which said “Uncle Vlad, don’t blow us up please. We’re going to vote for you anyway”. Could such a scenario be true, could the attack really be the work of the government? 

Nemtsov office

In 1997 President Boris Yeltsin appointed Nemtsov First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia – a post he occupied until 1998

Boris Nemtsov:

I read the same suggestion on blogs and Twitter feeds — that Putin had a hand in the incident, and that it is all just the start of the election campaign. Personally, I don’t believe that. I think that people can no longer be fooled the same way that they were in 2000. And if it was really like that, Putin would have engaged in a “blood” PR operation on the day of the bombing. He would have travelled to Domodedovo airport, given officials a summary dressing-down and so on. But he didn’t do anything like that. Instead, he quietly summoned the Minister for Health Tatiana Golikova and ordered her to provide medical assistance and pay compensation etc. That said, the fact that people are prepared to believe in even the most odious and nightmarish versions of Monday’s events does go to show just how much people now distrust Putin.

 

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