Russia's Sept. 11

by Stephen Gowans

January 1, 2002


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Attribute base motives to your own government, or those of its allies, and you're accused of deep cynicism, if not formulating conspiracy theories. But attribute the same base motives to other governments and you're celebrated for your trenchant political analysis. So it is that just a few days ago, Canada's leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, published a "politically insightful" essay on how some non-Western governments are calling their political opponents terrorists to justify a military solution and avoid addressing root causes of political turmoil. Tel Aviv and Washington, two governments, it can be argued, that are doing exactly the same, were not mentioned. Russia was.

Leafing through my notes I found the following essay, written August 10, 2000, more than a year before Sept. 11. The country is different (Russia), the antagonist is basically the same (Islamists), the subject is the same (terrorism), the parallels chilling. Change the names. Russia becomes the US, Chechens become al-Qaeda, the F.S.B. becomes the C.I.A. and Shamil Basayu becomes Osama bin Laden. Now an analysis of realpolitik becomes conspiracy theory. And yet, what's different?


What was the pretext for Russia breaking its 1997 treaty renouncing the use of military force in Chechnya? The export of Islamist secessionism to neighboring Dagestan and the Moscow apartment bombings.

No one has ever been arrested for the apartment bombings and the Russian government has never offered compelling evidence that Chechens were behind them. And the Chechens have disavowed all responsibility. The point of a terrorist attack is to make clear who's behind it and why. Chechen rebel leader, Shamil Basayu, has owned up to previous attacks on Russian targets, but denied any involvement in the Moscow apartment bombings. That's more than a little odd.

Some Moscow newspapers have speculated the F.S.B, successor to the K.G.B, set the bombs that razed the Moscow apartments. F.S.B agents, they say, were observed skulking in the basements of apartment buildings. The F.S.B doesn't deny it, but says its agents were engaged in training exercises. And Sergei Stepashin, who served briefly as prime minister, says the Kremlin was planning the Chechen campaign six months in advance of the apartment bombings. Yet the apartment bombings were said to be the reason the campaign was launched.

Just a few days ago, more bombs. This time the Moscow subway. Again, the charge is immediately made that the bombs were planted by Chechens. The police arrest a Chechen and Dagestani, but set them free soon after for want of evidence. Supporters of ultra nationalist Vladimir Zhironovsky are seen unfurling banners that read, "The only good Chechen is a dead Chechen." Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, playing the level-headed diplomat, urges Russians not to jump to conclusions, but if he wanted Russians to equate the bombings with Chechens, he can afford to be diplomatic. Russians have jumped to conclusions already.

Soon after the apartment bombings Muscovites shouted, "Kill them all, including the babies," and "Kill the dark skins." Support for the bombing of Chechnya rose. Even the Russian Orthodox Church blessed the campaign. Alexei II, church patriarch, praised the bombing and wished Russia's generals "courage and success."

But with fighting dragging on, and Russian casualties mounting, support for intervention in Chechnya has been falling, and support for negotiations has been rising. The results of a recent poll show that support for peace talks with the rebels have risen to 35 percent in June from 21 percent in February. At the same time, support for military intervention has dropped to 56 percent from 70 percent.

So, why would Chechen rebels undermine growing opposition to Russia's continued military presence in Chechnya with renewed terror attacks? And why, once again, are they fervently denying responsibility, even though they've been perfectly willing to own up to other attacks in the past? Doesn't it seem more likely that a government losing support from a population sickened by war might manufacture a new reason to support the war?

The Kremlin sold this war to the Russian population as a reaction to a clear and present danger presented by the Chechen rebels, but there was never any compelling evidence the Chechens posed any threat to ordinary Russians -- that is, until the Kremlin, not the Chechens, said the apartment and subway bombings were the handiwork of the guerillas.

It may be that neither the Kremlin or Chechens are responsible for Moscow's terror attacks, but it would be fitting for Russians to start thinking about culprits other than Chechens alone, culprits closer to home. It just may be that the real terrorists are not dark skinned at all. And it may be that the real reasons for the war having nothing whatever to do with smashing terrorism, but with what wars are almost always about: more power, more prestige, more wealth.



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published January 1, 2002
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