Following the deadly train bombings in Moscow, a Swiss expert on Russia says the attacks illustrate the failure of the Kremlin’s policy towards the Caucasus.
Thérèse Obrecht, president of the Swiss section of Reporters without Borders, tells swissinfo.ch that Chechnya is a Russian puppet state whose citizens live in constant fear of torture and assassination.
On Monday morning, female suicide bombers blew themselves up in twin attacks on Moscow underground stations packed with rush-hour passengers, killing at least 38 people and wounding more than 60, according to officials.
In a televised meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, the head of the federal security service said body fragments of the two bombers pointed to a North Caucasus connection. The bombers have not been identified.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who built much of his political capital by directing a fierce war with Chechen separatists a decade ago, vowed that “terrorists will be destroyed”.
United States President Barack Obama condemned the bombings, as did European Union leaders.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, speaking as president of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, said there was “no justification for such horrendous acts, which I condemn most firmly”.
“These terrible attacks remind us of the absolute necessity to continue our efforts to combat terrorism through means which are respectful of human rights and democratic values,” she said.
swissinfo.ch: Are Moscow’s claims that terrorists from the North Caucasus are behind the attacks credible?
Thérèse Obrecht: Whenever an attack is committed in Russia, the Chechens, more generally those from the Caucasus, get the blame. This often turns out to be justified, but when the attacks in 1999 killed more than 200 people in Moscow [sparking the Second Chechen War], the Chechen lead was clearly a manipulation of power. So we need to remain cautious.
Nevertheless, the method of these attacks appears to indicate the work of female suicide bombers from Chechnya or the Caucasus.
swissinfo.ch: In recent weeks Russian forces have killed several high-profile Islamic militant leaders in the Caucasus region. Could these attacks be a response?
T.O.: I think these are acts of revenge which are part of a never-ending circle of cruelty, injustice and war. In Chechnya, but also in the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, assassinations, abductions and acts of violence occur every day.
The North Caucasus is a powder keg. These attacks are proof that the Kremlin’s official line – relentlessly repeating that the war is over and everything is under control – is wrong. By making Ramzan Kadyrov, who is nothing but a murderer and torturer, president of Chechnya, Russia has failed. Sooner or later the Kremlin will also arrive at the conclusion that without a minimum of justice or hope, this conflict will remain latent for ever.
swissinfo.ch: After the murder of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in July 2009, some compared Kadyrov’s regime to the worst period under Stalin at the end of the 1930s. Do you agree?
T.O.: I wouldn’t go that far. But according to statistics published by [Russian human rights organisation] Memorial, in recent years there have been more deaths in Chechnya per head of the population than in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Ramzan Kadyrov is a dictator who governs his country in a totally random way. He’s a monster who has the country gripped by fear. The only hope for young people is to join the rebels. Radical Islam feeds on all the injustices that have endured for more than 15 years. The region is a fertile breeding ground where an entire generation has known nothing but injustice, violence and war.
swissinfo.ch: The Chechen conflict has spread to neighbouring states, notably Dagestan and Ingushetia. Do separatist claims there still have a future?
T.O.: In 1994, General Dudayev [first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, a breakaway state in the North Caucasus] was waging a separatist war, even if it took place among a background of settling gangland scores between the Russian and Chechen soldiers. The issue of oil was then added to the mix. Today, only a tiny minority of Chechens speak of independence. The war is above all an engine for corruption and all sorts of local mafia.
All people want is to be able to start living a normal life again. Chechens are currently living in total insecurity under a totally arbitrary regime. Some would even like the Russian troops to return. Kadyrov’s militias stop, torture and assassinate people with a vengeance. It’s a state without law or justice.
swissinfo.ch: Will Monday’s attacks strengthen or weaken Russia’s power?
T.O.: Some Russians maintain today that the government can’t guarantee their safety. The population fears another cycle of attacks. But until now, a policy of repression has always served the Kremlin. Putin’s vision is based entirely on force. We can therefore expect a new cycle of repression and revenge. The population is deprived of objective information and the government can manipulate it as it wants. As a general rule, attacks always weaken the side of peace.
swissinfo.ch: In 2009 Reporters without Borders denounced the “media iron curtain” across the Russian Caucasus. Will these attacks make the work of journalists there even harder?
T.O.: Definitely. Having lived in Russia for a long time, I can attest to the negative evolution concerning the freedom of the press. Last year Russia dropped another ten places in the rankings compiled by Reporters without Borders. It is now 154th out of 170 countries.
Samuel Jaberg, swissinfo.ch (Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)
The first explosion took place just before 8am at the Lubyanka station in central Moscow. The station is underneath the building that houses the main offices of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor agency, a symbol of power under Vladimir Putin.
About 45 minutes later, a second explosion hit the Park Kultury station, which is near the renowned Gorky Park. In both cases, the bombs were detonated as the trains pulled into the stations and the doors were opening.
The iconic Moscow subway system is the world's second-busiest after Tokyo's, carrying around seven million passengers on an average workday, and is a key element in running the sprawling and traffic-choked city.
At 4pm the two Moscow subway stations reopened and dozens boarded the waiting trains. Both stations had been scrubbed clean. Holes left by shrapnel in the granite were the only reminder of the bombings.
Regular contacts between Russia and Switzerland go back to the 18th century. Numerous Swiss worked in Russia, among other things as scholars and architects, while many Russians visited Switzerland.
In the 19th century Russia was one of the great powers which guaranteed Swiss neutrality.
In the 19th and early 20th century Switzerland attracted Russian artists, students and dissidents, including Lenin who spent several years of his European exile in different Swiss cities.
Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Switzerland broke off diplomatic relations the next year, and they were only restored in 1946.
In the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, relations were quickly stepped up, not only on the political and economic level, but also in science and culture.
Russia is one of Switzerland's major trading partners, and Switzerland is one of the leading foreign investors in Russia.
Swtizerland has been providing technical and financial support and humanitarian aid to Russia for ten years, particularly in the northern Caucasus.
In the wake of the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Switzerland has represented Russia's diplomatic interests in Georgia and Georgia's interests in Russia.