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Medvedev?€™s Losing Fight on Terrorism

It was inevitable that a major terrorist attack would have a direct impact on Russia’s political landscape. Even before the victims have been laid to rest, politicians from every camp are using the tragedy to settle political scores and for PR stunts. This shows once again that Russia is more prone to discord and conflict than solidarity and social responsibility.

Several conservative United Russia members have made the absurd accusation that liberal, pro-modernization members of Medvedev’s inner circle have been “rocking the political boat.” Based on these statements, you would almost think that the liberals were the main inspiration for the female suicide bombers. Monday’s bombings have given United Russia a “perfect excuse” for lashing out at the liberal opposition.

In this adversarial political atmosphere, who would bother discussing whether it would be best to give the political parties that are not represented in the State Duma the opportunity to address the parliament once every quarter, or only once a year?

In addition, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov’s comment five days before the attacks — that the abolishment of the death penalty may be a bad idea — now has added relevance. Deputies are already preparing a bill that would allow the death sentence for convicted terrorists. Before, the moratorium on the death sentence was only discussed within the context of Protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but now the people — and many deputies — want revenge.

Reforming law enforcement agencies might take a new direction. Before Monday’s bombings, the focus was on police abuse, such as the Moscow shooting spree by former Major Denis Yevsyukov. But now, strangely enough, there may be new calls to actually strengthen siloviki structures, not to bridle them. The proposal by Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin and others to fingerprint everyone from the Caucasus residing in Russia seemed so outrageous when it was first voiced, but it now appears rational and justified. Requiring that all Russians obtain a propiska —the internal registration document that was used during the Soviet era to track citizens’ movements within the country — will surely gain popularity.

After the horrors of the metro bombings, the authorities no longer need any false pretenses to disqualify dissenters’ marches. Now all they have to say is that mass gatherings could invite another terrorist attack. And the same argument can be used regarding rallies over utility rates. The authorities may very well sympathize with those who complain about the high cost of electricity, water and heat, but with the country under attack, they may say that now is not the time to increase the burden on the national budget by keeping rates below market cost.

Another issue is how the metro bombings will influence Moscow’s relationship with the North Caucasus in general. Many anticipated that the appointment of Alexander Khloponin as presidential envoy to the newly created North Caucasus Federal District would be met by military resistance from separatists in the region. But nobody imagined that this might take the form of a suicide bomber setting off a blast directly under Federal Security Service headquarters at Lubyanka in Moscow.

Terrorism might shape Medvedev’s presidency even more than the war with Georgia in August 2008. The main question is what extent these tragic events will influence Medvedev’s modernization proposals. Will he be forced to develop a completely different agenda?

Paradoxically, the success of Medvedev’s modernization program and the fight against terrorism both depend on whether the authorities are able to at least partially bridge the enormous gap between the government and the people. The country’s bureaucrats are most responsible for this abyss because of their corruption, arrogance, indifference to the hard realities of everyday life that most people endure and the large difference between their incomes and those of ordinary citizens. This gap engenders a deep distrust of the government that might even surpass the contempt that Soviets felt for their leaders and bureaucrats. This cynicism toward the government — and the security services in particular — has led to rumors that perhaps the FSB might have played a role in the recent bombings.

Without solidarity and a basic level of trust toward government institutions — above all, law enforcement agencies — it is impossible to win the fight against terrorism. For the authorities to gain that trust, they need to become closer to the people, learn to listen to them and answer to their concerns. And only then will the people stop thinking of the government as an adversary.

Georgy Bovt is a co-founder of the Right Cause party.

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