In a country lacking proper democratic process, linking Monday’s bomb attacks to forthcoming elections is trite. A more likely explanation is the lack of accountability that results from the very absence of elections, writes Kirill Rogov for openDemocracy.
I was in a cafe when I heard about the events at Domodedovo airport. I had fifteen minutes to kill before I was due to go on air at Radio Svoboda, so I’d dropped by for a quick cup of coffee and to check the internet. It was ten minutes in that I heard the first political commentary from an adjoining table. The two girls who sitting there had been joined by a third, who told them the news. I didn’t notice the conversation until my brain was jolted by the phrase “You don’t understand? It’s obvious: there’s going to be elections this year… or is it next year?”. Friends Twittered and Facebooked in similar vein: “well, well, well: election year is upon us”.
It wasn’t exactly hard to find a counterargument to such assertions: after all, an attack of similar scale happened on the underground system nine months ago, when no-one was talking about the elections. But the point to be made wasn’t the counterargument, but rather the logic of what they were saying. You see there aren’t actually any “elections” taking place either this year or next in Russia. “Election” has become a word uttered mechanically, without thought, by girls, journalists, political commentators alike, but with a significance somewhat removed from the accepted dictionary definition. It wasn’t too long ago that we were told that “elections” — the kind where people compete in dirty PR wars — were “sordid”, and bring nothing pleasant. Now, instead of having these sordid “elections”, we have a bloke who comes out and announces who we’ll be voting for. Yet everyone seems convinced that the terrorist attacks are all part of the wonderful “elections”. Why is that?
Meanwhile, political interpretations of the tragedy were multiplying across social networks. Someone wrote to me to say that it seemed the “Putin as Russia’s saviour” scenario — which one of my previous articles concluded was his only way back — was currently unfolding before our eyes. Someone else suggested the opposite: that the attack was of clear benefit to Medvedev, since he could blame Putin for it. A third explanation had it that that attacks happen in the capital only after some important Moscow cop is removed (“a Luzkhkov thread”). The logic of these positions was the same. It is that none of the above figures — Putin, Medvedev, Luzhkov — could do the normal thing and go onto television to denounce their rivals as thieves and scoundrels, and ask that people therefore vote for them (this is the rejected, “sordid” type of “elections”). And that, instead there is only one option open for them: arranging the deaths of dozens of people. Only that way would the people without free speech and TV debates really understood who the enemy was, and who represents the only hope (Russia’s “bloody” type of “elections”).
The Internet likewise sparkled with incomprehensible leaks and rumours, all clearly intended to send readers up the wrong path. There were stories of warnings, supposedly received by the authorities, and supposedly ignored. There were other claims, varying from the unconvincing to the absurd, all confused and painful to the brain. Conspiracy is, after all, an hysteria of the mind.
For me, there was a much simpler, clearer explanation, and it was much closer to hand.
First, I imagined the entrances to Moscow airports. The cordoned-off zone by the doors, framed by the metal detectors and powerful luggage scanning equipment. The two middle aged ladies, with newly pressed uniforms sitting by the machine; and next to them, sitting on a chair, the policeman. I can see how the women are chatting idly amongst themselves, while the cop is playing on his phone. How part of the cordon is missing on the right hand side, so everyone streams through this gap, under the melancholic and bleary eyed gaze of the eternal threesome.
Then I imagined the intercity bus from Makhachkala to Moscow on which the metro terrorists of nine months ago travelled. How in theory the bus was supposed to have been inspected at check-points some dozen times along the way. And how some dozen times it was stopped. How well the cops would have known the driver and his company. How they’d already taken everything they needed to from them. And how, if they actually stepped inside the coach, the most they would have done would have been be to poke their noses around and joke with the driver.
And then I remembered how a friend of mine explained how reports about the terrorist threat from the North Caucasus are usually compiled: how people previously suspected of terrorism are rounded up, how officers report that “x suspects have been held”, how they release them within three days, and come after them again in a couple of months when they need to write another report that “x suspects have been held”. And how all this links with the Deputy Prosecutor General’s triumphant claim in parliament that 300 fighters have been successfully “neutralised” over the year.
And then I read the news that the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK) is calling on Russians to join together in the face of terrorism. And the simple explanation, which lay so close to the surface, once again became so completely obvious. You see, that Anti-Terrorist Committee has a boss. A boss who wasn’t sacked after the last terrorist attack, and will not be sacked after this one either. Which means there will be a next one too.
There has indeed been no occasion in the past when either the Director of the FSB or Minister of the Interior was removed from his post following a terrorist incident. It is precisely because of this — and only because of this — that policemen continue to play on their mobile phones and use the their authority to supplement their income through extortion, and why the counter-terrorist army in the Caucasus is so clearly involved in deception. And it will remain this way until the top guys are fired. This is an elementary and basic principle of organizing work in vertical structures: it is only through vertical responsibility that you can get results. If you organize authority from the top down, then responsibility must also be organized the same way.
In the Russian “vertical”, everything is the other way round. On Monday, Dmitry Medvedev blamed the owners of Domodedovo and the local police. This is a cynical deception. Government and its security agents must be responsible for security and averting terrorist attacks. They have a million powers to do their job, and this is a number that increases with every terrorist attack. The police on duty have a line manager, who has a manager above him too. Everyone, in theory, is supposed to check from the top town, while everyone, in theory, is supposed to give account of themselves from the bottom up. Those at the top have no other business and no other responsibilities other than to make the people below work properly, and to answer for their work.
Yes, in our “power vertical”, everything is the other way around. Our “vertical” ensures maximum rights and privileges at the top, and maximum responsibility at the bottom. There’ll always be someone to blame, but there will never be any result — this is the law of management physics. Russia’s power vertical works not to defend those below from terrorist attacks and the like, but is instead there to protect those at the top from taking any responsibility for security. And while everything else remains as it is, things will continue like this. After every new terrorist attack, we will thank our lucky souls that it wasn’t us this time, and brace ourselves for the next misfortune.
One other thing. If there is no way of removing the director of the secret services or the ministers responsible for security after a terrorist attack, or if their dismissal changes nothing; if this “vertical” continues to provide a steady stream of minions to blame, if things continue failing to produce results, then we need to fire the people higher up the food chain: that is the president and prime minister. They are responsible for appointing people to positions of authority and carry political responsibility for their work. This is also, in essence, their single task and single responsibility: answering for the work of those they appoint.
Only a mountain of conspiracy theories could blind people to this single, elementary conclusion. So please, let’s end talk of the bombings being some sort of conspiracy connected to the elections. In an obvious and direct way, it is on the contrary connected with “non-elections”. Just as in proper elections, non-elections involve dirt and PR. And also, it transpires, a great deal of blood.
Kirill Rogov is Senior Research Fellow at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, Moscow. This article was originally published by openDemocracy. To view the original, please click here.