Binging on Purging

Just after 4:30 pm Moscow time on Monday, a man with a suitcase walked into a crowd at the international arrivals terminal in Domodedovo, Russia’s busiest airport, and the suitcase blew up. Or maybe it was a man with explosives strapped to his body. Unless it was a woman who opened her bag, triggering an explosion that blew off the head of the man accompanying her. A day after the bombing at Domodedovo that killed 35 people, including several foreigners, and injured over 100, no one has yet claimed responsibility and there is little to go on except a closed-circuit tape of the moment of the blast and a grainy photo of the alleged bomber’s severed head.

But, even before the medics could carry the bodies out of the airport, the finger-pointing began. Within hours of the attack, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on the air with the opening salvo. “The airport is a good one, everyone recognizes this. It’s new and modern,” the president said on state television. “But what happened shows there were severe security breaches. And everyone there who takes part in decision making should bear responsibility for this, including the management of the airport.”

Said (privately owned) airport immediately fired back. “We think that we should not bear responsibility for the blast, as all the requirements of aviation safety were met by our personnel,” a Domodedovo spokeswoman said, adding that it was far too early to parcel out the blame.

United Russia Duma deputy Alexandr Khinshtein, meanwhile, did not. He had a different culprit. In fact, he had three, though no one had ever heard of them. “I am certain that the chief of the security division of Domodedovo, the chief of the transportation department of the Interior Ministry of the Central Federal District, the chief of transportation security of the Interior Ministry — if they consider themselves officers, they must write letters of resignation,” Khinshtein said on Tuesday.

Medvedev seemed to agree. Later that day, he did something that he knew would make everyone in Russia feel better: He asked Rashid Nurgaliev, the interior minister, to present him with a list of people to fire, by the end of the day. (He hasn’t, yet.)

Firing people seems to be the best way out of any difficult situation in contemporary Russia. Transportation collapse at peak holiday travel season due to unforeseeable meteorology? Fire the deputy director of Aeroflot Airlines. Internationally controversial death of a lawyer in highly questionable police custody? No problem! Just fire 20 prison officials. Catastrophic fire at a provincial nightclub that leaves 148 people dead? Fire the nightclub’s management, and, while you’re at it, force the entire region’s government to resign for good measure.

Russians love firing people, because it’s fast, cheap, and easy. If you fire people, you don’t have to, say, examine the way fire codes are implemented and clean out a cadre of corrupt fire safety inspectors. You don’t have to overhaul the entire Interior Ministry to punish the inspectors who first defrauded the Russian treasury of $230 million and then put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in jail for investigating it. And you certainly don’t, in the case of the Domodedovo bombing, have to pursue a delicately balanced counterterrorism strategy in the North Caucasus.

It wasn’t always like this. In November 2009, Medvedev pleasantly surprised many when he spoke of the increasingly violent and uncontainable Caucasus in his address to the nation’s political elite. “It is evident that the source of many problems lies primarily in the region’s economic backwardness and the absence of the promise of a normal life for most people,” he said, finally acknowledging the complex factors — poverty and corruption, as well as radical Islam — that feed the growing insurgency in the area. “We will pay attention to the resolution of social and economic problems,” Medvedev promised. He even appointed a young-ish businessman, Alexander Khloponin, to preside over a newly delineated federal district in the area.

After two wars and extensive — and notoriously brutal — Russian operations to snuff out resistance in Chechnya, the North Caucasus has been stubbornly spinning out of control in the last few years, with violence spilling into neighboring Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Hardly a week goes by without news of a suicide bombing or of Russian troops “eliminating” yet another nest of fighters. But those missions alone have so far yielded few results: By Moscow’s own estimates, terrorist attacks in the region doubled in 2010.

Just a year after announcing his new plan, however, Medvedev seems to have entirely forgotten about it. “What happened to the strategy? Was it successful? Was it even being pursued?” asks Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made some gestures toward assisting the region, including chastising his cabinet — just a day before the Domodedovo bombing — for holding back progress in the region, and pledging $13 billion to various stimulus projects there. But the strategy is generally seen as unsuccessful and bogged down in the usual government corruption. There’s no sign that Putin’s stab at it will be any different. Says Lipman, “It’s the right policy toward the region, but it takes a decade — or decades — to pursue. It’s simpler learn to live with the reality of terrorism if you can’t solve it in the short term.” Removing people from their posts is part of that palliative strategy.

Firing, of course, may be a sign of political evolution, if an ambivalent one. Back when Putin was president, there was little public-penance firing to speak of. In the aftermath of a terror attack, like Beslan or the hostage crisis at Dubrovka, Putin would turn to his rattled nation, and reassure them with tough talk and aggressively scatological metaphors.

Under Medvedev — at least in the areas where he is allowed to exercise a modicum of political muscle — there is still the tough talk, though much toned down. (When he ran into journalist Oleg Kashin on his trip to Israel, Medvedev told him he would “tear the heads off” the two men who beat Kashin up.) But Medvedev is a liberal, and he likes to show that he is listening and that he is outraged when something bad happens in his government. Being a Russian liberal, however, he must show that he can and will act swiftly to punish those who, say, allow his subjects to gather unprotected in the nation’s airport terminals. And because he cannot change the system — and because his subjects know he can’t — he must find the specific people responsible for each seemingly relevant dereliction.

“This is a Russian tradition because there is no tradition of political responsibility,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank linked to the Kremlin. “The idea of political responsibility is now seen as political terror, as Stalinism.” The fear of repeating the purges of the late 1930s has swung so far the other way that now “there’s a tendency to look for that one specific person who didn’t put the metal detector in the right place, and maybe his boss, and fire them. And the problem with insisting on personal responsibility is you end up with the head of the government surrounded by the same people that can sometimes change places, but they’re never going to bring any systemic change in their ministries.”

That is, the people who matter — whose departures could significantly improve the ministries and agencies they head — never get fired. The officials who are publicly fired are usually of middling deputy rank, sacrificial lambs whose departures rarely make a difference save for a quick political catharsis, and quick political hay.

Speaking today at the FSB board, Medvedev seemed to acknowledge the futility of this approach. “Unfortunately, it always happens like this here,” he said. “After unfortunate events, we mobilize all our resources, everyone is called upon to be extremely attentive. Everything works in this way for a while — the armed forces, the law enforcement agencies. Even the citizens have a more responsible attitude.” And then? And then “there is a loss of control and vigilance.”

And then Medvedev asked his interior minister for the list of people to fire.

Binging on Purging [FP]

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