By Leonid Bershidsky
NEW YORK: Hours after a bomb struck a bus in the city of Volgograd on Monday morning, adding at least 14 deaths to the toll of 17 people killed in an attack the previous night, Russia’s official alert level remained yellow, not red. President Vladimir Putin had yet to address the nation.
Putin has a history of responding slowly and coldly to public tragedies, but Volgograd — once known as Stalingrad — is about half way from Moscow to the site of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which begin in less than six weeks. One would have expected a swifter response from the top.
A spokesman for investigators on the case said Monday’s attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, using the identical TNT explosives to the night before. Some Kremlin loyalists are indeed drawing the connection to the Olympics, and Putin today called for increased security nationwide and a special regime for Volgograd.
“The explosions are preparation for terrorist attacks on the Olympics and an attempt to provoke other countries to refuse to take part of the Sochi Olympic Games,” political scientist Sergei Markov wrote on the pro-Kremlin site Vzglyad.ru. He added that U.S. Sen. John McCain, “the Russian terrorists and radical opposition have found themselves in the same camp. That is no accident, they are all united by Russo phobia.”
The official response to the bombings was slow, however, appearing to treat them as mundane — which in a way they are. Volgograd has seen a number of terrorist attacks since the 1990s, most recently in October, when a woman named Naida Asiyalova blew up a bus, killing herself and seven others. Later, the authorities said they had killed the mastermind of that attack, Murad Kasumov. Both perpetrators were from troubled Dagestan.
The mainly Muslim North Caucasus regions of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya supply most of the fanatical suicide bombers, many of them women, who have launched terrorist attacks in Russia over the years. Volgograd, a city of 1 million, is about 400 miles from these regions and accessible by train or road. It is also an easy target, because uncommonly vicious infighting between local businessmen and politicians make for a weak local government.
Sergei Bozhenov is Volgograd’s third governor in four years, his two predecessors, both locally born, were destroyed by the constant struggles for power in the city. Putin sent in Bozhenov, who has a reputation for toughness, from a neighboring region, but now the governor, one of the most unpopular in Russia, appears to be at a loss as to how to deal with the terrorist attacks, promising only to augment the police force with volunteers.
“Does the choice of Volgograd as the scene for terrorist attacks have anything to do with the fact that local law enforcement chiefs are seen as participants of the endless political infighting in the city and surrounding region?” editor Vlad Vlovin, a native of Volgograd, wrote in the daily Izvestia. “The law enforcers there have more important business than ensuring public safety.”
The first explosion, at the entrance to the railroad station, shook the city. Monday’s attack on the trolleybus caused people spontaneously to get off buses and walk to work. Shopping malls closed on Monday, and Volgograd residents avoided public places. The seemingly indifferent silence from Putin and top security officials triggered some angry outbursts on social networks. “One does not even expect the president to look the nation in the eyes and express public condolences,” Elena Panfilova, head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, wrote on Facebook.
Putin may be hesitating to speak out because any alarmist statements from him might indeed cast doubt on the security of the Olympics at Sochi, which is much closer than Volgograd to the terrorist hotbeds of the North Caucasus. Security is already extra tight at the Olympic venue, and law enforcement chiefs know Putin won’t forgive them for allowing anyone to mess with an Olympic showcase that has cost $48 billion to stage.
Putin has allowed the U.S. State Department to overtake him in condemning the Volgograd attacks and sending condolences to the victims’ families. Apart from the president’s customary lack of empathy, this may hide a slow fuse burning. As soon as the mourning period for the victims ends, the hapless governor and the local security chiefs are likely to be replaced. Sochi will be turned into a veritable fortress.
Otherwise, this is business as usual in Russia, where a terrorist underground continues to exist in the North Caucasus, despite the billions of dollars spent to eradicate it.
Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor.