By: Pritam K. Rohila, Ph.D.
In the early afternoon of April 3, piercing screams disrupted the relative calm, in Russia’s tourist capital of St. Petersburg. Screams were coming from passengers.in the third car of the subway, as it was entering a tunnel between stations. A bomb had just exploded killing 11 passengers and injuring more than 40 of them. A Russian born in Kyrgyzstan was found to be responsible for the terrorist attack.
Terrorists have struck Russia before. In 2002, armed Chechens occupied a musical theater in Moscow and took 912 spectators as hostages.
Two years later, about 30 Chechen militants occupied an elementary school, in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. They took more than 1,000 people, including 777 children, as hostages.
Putin dealt with both situations decisively and effectively, but without regard to the loss of life. In case of the former, he had the theater flooded with sleeping gas, which killed all the 41 terrorists as well as 130 hostages. In the latter, about 400 people were killed in the raid ordered by Putin.
In neither case, Putin offered any apology, accepted any responsibility, or allowed any investigation into the matter by Duma, the Russian parliament.
Regardless, the latest terrorist attack has happened, in spite of Putin’s tough law and order stance. And that it happened so close to his last presidential election bid in 2018, may be worrisome to Putin.
At the very least, it highlights undercurrents of discontent among people in and from the former USSR republics.
In Russia’s North Caucasus region, where most of its 20 million Muslims live, there is increasing support for the rigid, intolerant Wahhabi Islam. Over 2,000 Russian-born fighters from this area have traveled to join Islamic State. Therefore, it is not surprising that, after Arabic and English, Russian is the third most common language spoken by Islamic State jihadists. What these battle-hardened fighters will do after they return home, must be a source of concern to many Russians, including Putin.
But this situation in Russia is not dissimilar to that in some of the West European countries, especially Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. While the adult migrants from their former colonies have compromised with their situation, young people have not found it easy to “belong” there.
Caught between who they are at home, and what they have to be in their schools and neighborhoods, they have an identity problem. Then the identity offered to them by Islamist jihadists, through mass media sites like Facebook, is appealing to them. Also for them, the possibility of the revival of the Ottoman glory, or pride of martyrdom in its pursuit, is a dream worth dying for.
To add to Putin’s problems, are recent setbacks in his plans to undermine the European Union. In pursuit of this plan, in March 2015, he hosted the International Russian Conservative Forum, at St. Petersburg. He invited representatives of all Euroskeptic movements in Europe, and most of them participated in the Forum. Further, through the First Czech-Russian Bank, he loaned money to help finance election campaigns of the right-wing European leaders.
To Putin’s dismay, the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, right-wing Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilder lost the recent Dutch election.
Although in recent polls in France, the anti-EU, anti-immigration, far-right National Front Party leader Marine Le Pen, has made a strong showing, for months she has been plagued by allegations of improper use of EU funds.
And if all this was not enough, recently the European Court of Human Rights found the Russian government culpable for mishandling the 2004 terrorist attack on a school, in spite of prior knowledge about it.