Terrorism and Russia’s power vertical


Russia has been conducting a war on terror for 15 years. No wonder counter-terror is a part of the country’s system of governance. RU

Badma Biurchiev
18 March 2016

The evolution of Russia’s power vertical is inextricably linked to the stages of its war on terrorism. For the last decade and a half, Russia’s ruling class has dedicated its domestic policy to consolidate its own power. And during this period, state building in Russia has been conducted in the regime of a permanent anti-terror operation

It is no surprise, then, that the ruling elite’s legislative programme has boiled down to a systematic curtailment of civil rights as guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and, eventually, to arbitrary rule.

The principle that “might is right” has also been enthusiastically adopted by the establishment in Russia’s constituent republics, which hasn’t improved their relations with the people they govern. Meanwhile, the replacement of local elites with Kremlin-approved figures has proceeded slowly but surely. Russia is now a federation only in name.

Two parallel lines: terrorism and repression

Six years ago Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department of the independent Center for Political Technologies, remarked that “to a greater or lesser extent, every terrorist attack in Russia has provided the impetus for implementing political reforms or decisions that were already on the agenda.”

In 1999, the explosions at residential blocks in Moscow became the “prologue to federal reform”, which involved the creation of an additional layer of regional government, grouping existing administrative areas into nine federal districts — each was headed by an envoy appointed by the President of Russia. These explosions also kicked off the Second Chechen War.

After the Moscow Metro attacks, the authorities used the pretext of war on terror to bend the law in order to intensify harassment of public and religious figures involved in dissent

In 2002, after the siege of Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre ended in 130 deaths, the government began its “Chechenisation” project — the gradual handover of power in the North Caucasus republic to powerful local clans (later, “Chechenisation” was to turn into “Ramzanisation”, after Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya with support from Moscow since 2007).


2004: mourners gather for a mass funeral at Beslan, Russia. (c) Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images. All rights reserved.In 2004, the Beslan school hostage crisis triggered the “most far reaching political reforms in modern Russian history: the abolition of direct gubernatorial elections, reform of the electoral system and a spate of new “political” laws – on political parties, the media, public assembly, extremism and control of NGOs.” 

And this turned out to be just the start. A spate of terrorist acts in 2010-2013, such as the attacks on Moscow’s Metro, Domodedovo Airport and public transport in Volgograd, served as justification for the further expansion of the powers of government, police and national security structures.

After the Moscow Metro attacks, the authorities used the pretext of war on terror to bend the law in order to intensify harassment of public and religious figures involved in dissent. The Volgograd tragedy hastened the creation of a whole basket of anti-terrorist legislation that rights campaigners believe has violated Russians’ right to freedom of speech, privacy in their personal lives and economic activity.

While Vladimir Putin had earlier signed an ambiguous law, which forces members of terrorists’ families to compensate their relatives’ victims, the Volgograd station attack led to the so-called “Law on separatism”, which contradicts the very idea of federalism.

In other words, insufficient loyalty to the Kremlin became the equivalent of a serious crime

All of this was happening as the Maidan protest movement confronted the government in Kyiv, and on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics, so it was not surprising that tension in Russian government circles was running high. But ultimately, this crackdown on civil rights led in the end to relations between the government and civil rights campaigners being regulated mostly by anti-terrorist and anti-extremist legislation.

In other words, insufficient loyalty to the Kremlin became the equivalent of a serious crime. Seemingly forgotten terms such as “foreign agents”, “national traitors,” and “fifth-columnists” suddenly re-emerged in the public discourse, and in a matter of days the propaganda machine turned Putin’s opponents into pariahs.

Russian TV and Umberto Eco 

The tactics used by Russian TV channels are tried and tested. The late Umberto Eco described them as two types of censorship — through silence or noise.

You will not, for example, hear any serious discussion on national TV channels of controversial films such as “Chaika”, the investigative documentary made by Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, or “Who is Mr Putin?”, both of which deal with alleged corruption involving senior government figures. You can, however, spend all day watching reports on such burning issues as the European migrant “invasion” and scandals involving politicians in Ukraine, the U.S., and so on.

This “white noise” is clearly designed to distract Russian citizens from the real problems facing their country — the absence of an independent judiciary, effective government institutions and competitive scientific and economic sectors.

For a deeper understanding of what is going on we need to look once more at the link between Russia’s anti-terrorist agenda and its system of government. 

Sacrificing their rights to bureaucratic colonisers

The counter-terrorist operation mode in which the Kremlin has operated since 1999 originally allowed for a temporary cutback in Russians’ constitutional rights and freedoms. The problem is that these extreme measures have become systematic.

This tightening grip of repression is not a means, but an end in itself

Russia’s permanent counter-terror operation has accelerated a process of internal colonisation common in countries whose economy is heavily dependent on exploiting natural resources.

As the cultural historian Alexander Etkind explains: “when the state derives its income not from the taxes paid by its citizens, but as a direct financial return on the extraction and sale of a natural resource […] the public becomes redundant […] Since the state does not depend on taxes for its wealth, taxpayers have no control over the government […] The population ceases to be the state’s source of prosperity and instead becomes the object of its charity.”


September 2011: Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, is rocked by two bombs in quick succession overnight, killing one police officer and injuring 60 people. (c) Ilyas Khadzhi / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.The Russian public, which has no means of exercising any influence on the state and cowed by the scary TV footage, meekly and even with a certain kind of relief has sacrificed their sovereignty time and again for the sovereignty of the state — or to be more precise, a corporation consisting of senior bureaucrats, oligarchs, generals and judges.

These are, in other words, the “colonisers”, who use any excuse to institutionalise their power over the “redundant population” and who pass off their ever more repressive laws as a sign of concern for their people’s welfare.

This tightening grip of repression is not a means, but an end in itself. Censorship by noise, as noted above, conceals a future of absolute powerlessness for Russian citzens who are not part of the power vertical.

The full weight of Russian justice

For as long as Russia’s government had enough cash for handouts — index-linked pensions and salaries for public service workers, the traditional sprouting of new children’s playgrounds in the run up to elections — the so-called “TV party” (i.e. members of the public who form opinions based on what the television says) saw itself as part of the social fabric of the state. This group applauded the annexation of Crimea, demanded the federalisation of Ukraine and threatened to reduce the U.S. to a heap of radioactive ash.

But it was less enthusiastic about the bombing of Syria: a growing economic crisis had cooled down the hotheads and forced them to look reality in the eye a little more often.

The “TV party” also found it difficult to see long distance lorry drivers, up in arms against a new road toll, and teachers protesting after months without pay, as a “fifth column” of traitors — they looked nothing like the “creative class” which had been easily portrayed as “enemies of the people”.


February 2016: Moscow city authorities pull down kiosks as part of their "optimisation" drive. CC http://nyka-huldra.livejournal.com.And after the “night of the long scoops” in early February, when bulldozers smashed a hundred or so illegal retail kiosks around metro stations in Moscow, even Putin supporters, desperately trying to wield portraits of the president in defence of their property, realised that a no-holds-barred fight had begun between the state and society. No “property deeds”, as mentioned by the mayor of Moscow, would be any help to them in court.

Indeed, it was telling that Moscow Metro boss Dmitry Pegov told journalists that demolition of these kiosks was necessary because they “could represent a terrorist threat”.

This devaluation of the concepts of “terrorism” and “extremism” has given rise to a new kind of inflation in return. While military specialists concur that terrorist activity in Russia has decreased in the last few years (as confirmed by figures published by the platform Caucasus Knot on the number of deaths in combat in the North Caucasus), Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has recorded a steady rise in both crimes “of a terrorist nature” and legal violations “of an extremist orientation”.

Yet for some reason, the law enforcement agencies in Dagestan refuse to categorise a recent suicide bomber’s attack on a traffic control post as an act of terrorism.

While in the past anti-terrorist and anti-extremist legislation was only used to punish government opponents and religious dissidents, now it is becoming a universal tool

This “inflation” is making itself felt in another sense. While in the past anti-terrorist and anti-extremist legislation was only used to punish government opponents and religious dissidents, now it is becoming a universal tool. Its application is totally arbitrary.

To take just one example: on 8 February, Tatarstan’s branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Rais Suleimanov, a specialist at the republic’s National Strategy Institute who has the reputation of being a pro-Kremlin opponent of “non-traditional” (i.e. radical) Islam. Suleimanov has been charged under the notorious Article 282 of Russia’s Criminal Code, which bans “incitement to hatred”.

The investigators claim that Suleimanov’s articles on “the supposed presence in Tatarstan of underground groups of radical Islamists and active national-separatists and their support by large numbers of Muslims and Tatars as well as spiritual leaders and members of the republic’s government” could “provoke hatred and enmity among groups of people professing different opinions, mindsets and interests”, and provoke an increase in social tension in society.

In other words, Suleimanov’s opinions are being used to paint him as a criminal. As Yana Amelina, the secretary-coordinator of the Caucasian Geopolitical Club (whose members are leading specialists in the area) and who shares Suleimanov’s position, puts it: “An Islam specialist, who has always defended the federal centre’s position in Tatarstan, has felt the full weight of the Russian ‘justice’ system’.”

Who benefits?

Denis Sokolov, a senior research fellow at Russia’s Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), believes the situation might lead to an all-out war.

Sokolov believes that in this new political reality, the person who will come out best is Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov “knows better than anyone that the line between terrorism and the war being waged against it is a very fine one” and who, “governed by his animal instinct” is not trying to predict trends, but to “choose between two versions of the future the one where he will still operate and will be able drag the whole system behind him”.

“Under cover of the war on terrorism,” Sokolov adds, “the law enforcement system in the North Caucasus — and now indeed throughout the country — is at war with political competition and dissidence.”

Russia’s regional authorities, energetically pursuing their “might is right” agenda, are increasingly losing their connection with society

The North Caucasus has indeed been living in a long-running counter-terror regime for many years, and in terms of building the appropriate governmental structures, its way ahead of the rest of Russia. It is pretty risky to try to stand up for your constitutionally-protected economic or political rights there: anyone who tries might find their names added to the “Wahhabi register” (alleged Islamic extremists) and effectively lose their civil rights.

At the same time, Russia’s regional authorities, energetically pursuing their “might is right” agenda, are increasingly losing their connection with society.


July 2013: the house of a local imam in Gimry, Dagestan, is pulled down as part of a punishment operation. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 CRISIS GROUP / Varvara Pakhomenko. Some rights reserved.Konstantin Kazenin, a colleague of Sokolov’s at RANEPA, believes that there has been a sea change in relations between the political establishment and the rest of the population: 10-15 years ago, people in the North Caucasus still identified strongly with their leaders, but now there is a general indifference on both sides.

The federal centre was quick to capitalise on this “alienation” — Operation “Elite Change” went smoothly. “Local political heavyweights, Moscow’s erstwhile allies in the creation of the power vertical, were put behind bars,” says Sokolov, “the first being the mayor of Makhachkala Said Amirov. They were not prosecuted for corruption (or not only for corruption – other equally corrupt officials are still in post and have even been rewarded) but for having too much independence. The Caucasian warlords found themselves being bested by a new generation of Kremlin bureaucrats, mostly political analysts and party apparatchiks.”

It’s not hard to guess what Amirov was convicted of after his arrest in the summer of 2013: terrorism. An arrest warrant, for financing terrorism and organsing a number of murders, was also issued against Sagid Murtazaliev, the director of Dagestan’s Pension Fund, who had testified against Amirov in court. Murtazaliev was however not at home when it was delivered. He is now in hiding abroad.

Federal “invaders” occupy top jobs

The final stage in this internal colonisation is not necessarily always accompanied by high-profile criminal court cases. In Kalmykia, in southern Russia, for example, it attracted hardly any attention, apart from a scandalous article entitled “What an analysis of management cadres in Kalmykia can tell us” by Batyr Boromangaev, the regional head of the liberal Yabloko party.

Boromangaev’s article included a list of the local heads of federal ministries and other government bodies as of April 2015. Fewer than half of them (13 out of 27) were born or even lived in Kalmykia, and only eight were ethnic Kalmyks (who according to the 2010 Census made up 57% of the population).

These “invaders”, moreover, occupy all the top jobs in the law enforcement and security structures, the office of the regional Central Bank chief and the posts of CEOs of the two major utility monopolies supplying gas and electricity in Kalmykia.

Only Chechnya and Tatarstan are managing to preserve relative independence from the Kremlin

A similar situation is probably developing in other regions. A quick look at the biographies of the heads of Russia’s southern republics shows that Kalmykia’s head of government Aleksei Orlov lived in Moscow between 1984 and his 2010 appointment to his present position. Dagestan’s head Ramazan Abdulatipov also barely set foot in his homeland between 1988 and his appointment as interim head of government in 2013.

The same can be said of Yury Kokov, head of Kabardino-Balkaria, who between 1999 and 2013 worked outside the republic and Yunus-bek Yevkurov, head of Ingushetia, who served in the Russian military from 1982 to 2008. All these men nominally represent their peoples, but in fact are closer to the “Moscow bureaucracy”.


The leaders of Dagestan and Ingushetia, Ramazan Abdulatipov and Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Source: government.ru.Only Chechnya and Tatarstan are managing to preserve relative independence from the Kremlin. In the case of Chechnya this can be explained by the legacy of the wars fought there and, evidently, some tacit obligations. Tatarstan’s special status is regulated by an exclusive bilateral separation of powers treaty with Moscow. The republic’s political and economic self-sufficiency is expressed in the fact that it still has its own president: Russia’s other republics abolished this position after Kadyrov’s 2010 statement that, “in a united country there should only be a single president”.

So in terms of formal sovereignty, the Tatarstan government’s reaction to Rais Sulrimanov’s “harassment” was to some extent justified. Obviously, it wasn’t just Kadyrov who followed Putin’s advice: “If you can’t avoid a fight, make sure you hit first”.

Speaking of Kadyrov, as I was writing this, the head of Chechnya announced his intention not to stand for re-election, insisting that his decision had nothing to do with joining the federal government. The announcement amazed political commentators, whose consensus was that it’s all a game: Kadyrov just wants to be begged to stay.

This interpretation found some confirmation in the words of Chechen ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiev, who called Kadyrov’s refusal to ballot a “mass violation of citizens’ rights”. We’ll soon find out if that’s true: Kadyrov’s term ends on 5 April. Perhaps the Chechen leader’s “animal instinct” is telling him that its time to make elite rule an inalienable right of his subjects.

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