Sunday, April 9, 2017

Petersburg Attack Calls into Question Foundation of Putin’s System, Barinov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 9 – Since he rose to power, Vladimir Putin has made his ability to counter terrorism so central to his political system and legitimacy than any successful terrorist attack, like the April 3 bombing in St. Petersburg, not only offers him new opportunities to tighten the screws but also raises questions about his much-ballyhooed ability to prevent such attacks.

            Most attention over the last week has focused on the ways the Kremlin leader may again tighten the screws, but Aleksandr Barinov argues Putin’s failure to prevent this attack has forced him to change course, minimizing the incident, on the one hand, and mobilizing the population Soviet-style to condemn it, on the other (

            Putin and his allies, the Moscow commentator says, have displayed an almost “Olympian calm” about the attacks, with the leader and his followers suggesting that such attacks are a fact of life in today’s world that Russia can’t hope to avoid entirely, a very different message than he has delivered in the past.

            Moreover, the Kremlin has organized meetings of the population against terrorism, thus seeking simultaneously to prevent any questions about the responsibility of the powers that be for the fact that the attack happened and to draw on the anger of an “enraged” citizenry to provide another line of defense against future attacks.

            For Putin more than most leaders, terrorist attacks raise questions because the political system he has put in place since Beslan in 2004 has been based on fighting terrorism. At that time, Barinov says, Putin declared that “the inspirers, organizers and executors of terrorist actions are seeking to disintegrate the country.”

            And he posed then as he has since as uniquely positioned to defend the country against such attacks, although then and especially now Putin has stressed as well the importance of “the active participation” in this struggle not only “of all institutions of the political system” but also “of all Russian society.”

            Putin invoked the need to fight terrorism as the justification for broadening the powers of the security agencies, restricting elections and the powers of parliaments and magistrates and a range of new laws for countering terrorism that in effect transformed Russia from a quasi-democracy to a dictatorship.

            This was part of the second grand bargain between the Kremlin and the Russian people. In the first, the regime promised wealth and a rising standard of living in exchange for deferring to Putin on all political issues. And in this second, the regime promised security in exchange for the surrender of basic liberties.

            The first broke down after the collapse of oil prices, and now the second has appeared to many to have broken down in St. Petersburg on April 3. 

            “In such a situation,” Barinov continues, “the restrained reaction of the authorities to the tragedy in St. Petersburg looks completely logical.” Doing more would only call attention to this failure of the regime.  And despite some moves by inertia to tighten the screws, the regime appears likely to continue as it has.

            To do otherwise would only raise more questions not only about how best to fight terrorism but also about Putin’s claims of his ability to do so. And the Soviet-style mass meetings to condemn terrorism are all of a piece: they too are intended to block any discussion of why this action happened and whether more such attacks are ahead.

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