Wednesday,23 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Wednesday,23 August, 2017
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Terror strikes St Petersburg

Russia sees another tragic terror attack — a direct challenge to Putin

Terror strikes St Petersburg
Terror strikes St Petersburg

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was meeting his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in a suburb of St Petersburg at the time of the blast.

St Petersburg is no Leningrad. And Putin’s Russia is dramatically different from Mikhail Gorbachev’s. The latter’s perestroika — literally “restructuring” in Russian — is no more. Gorbachev’s glasnost is relegated to the ash heap of history.

Putin’s assumption of the Russian presidency in 2000 ushered in a new beginning. Putin proclaimed the “dictatorship of law”. The blast, which struck a crowded metro train near the historic city centre at 2:20 local time, ironically occurred as Putin was visiting the city. The St Petersburg blast is a test to Putin’s “dictatorship of law”.

Russia has its own laws and political dynamics. St Petersburg authorities suspended metro services following the blasts and stepped up security at the city’s international airport.

Georgy Poltavchenko, the governor of St Petersburg, announced three days of official mourning beginning Tuesday.

Monday’s attack was the deadliest outside the Caucasus since two suicide bombers killed 32 people in the southern city of Volgograd in December 2013.

Suicide bombers also targeted the Moscow Metro in 2010 and Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport in 2011.

St Petersburg was last struck by terrorism in October 2015, when a bomb on board a civilian airliner travelling from Egypt killed 224 people, many of them holiday makers from the city.

Mangled metal wreckage strewn around the platform Monday, it was astounding that most passengers did not panic, but were directed to leave the metro subway and seek other modes of transport. Many, however, stayed to help transfer the injured to nearby hospitals.

The likely suspect in the deadly blast in the Russian city is a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen, Kyrgyzstan’s security service has revealed.

Kyrgystan is a predominantly Muslim nation of six million people in Central Asia. It is predominantly ethnic Kyrzyg. Nevertheless, a minority of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek as well as Russians live in the tiny, mountainous nation. Kyrgyzstan enjoys a secular constitution, although it continues to suffer ethnic conflicts. Ethnic Uzbek and the Kyrzyg majority live precariously together in the city of Osh, an Uzbek stronghold where the chief suspect of the St Petersburg metro blast was born.

The Kyrzyg people are overwhelmingly non-denominational Muslims and secularists. The Kyrgyz language is closely related to other Turkic languages. However, Russian remains widely spoken and is the official language, a legacy of the Soviet Union and a century-long policy of multiculturalism. In addition to its Turkic origins, Kyrgyz culture bears elements of Persian, Mongolian and Russian influence.

According to the last Soviet census in 1989, ethnic Kyrgyz made up only 22 per cent of the residents of the northern city of Frunze, now renamed Bishkek, in the post-Soviet era. Bishkek is a cosmopolitan, multi-racial and multi-religious nation with more than 60 per cent of the capital, Bishkek, Russians, Ukrainians, and people from other Slavic nations. Nearly 10 per cent of the capital’s population is Jewish. But, many Kyrgyz Jews have left the country for Israel.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said they knew who the attacker was but refused to immediately confirm Kyrgyz claims, saying they did not want to compromise the investigation.

Russian and Kyrgyz media, citing anonymous Russian sources, said Jalilov moved to St Petersburg with his parents from the city of Osh in 2011. They subsequently moved back to Kyrgyzstan, but he remained in Russia and is a naturalised Russian national. ‬

A bearded man who appeared on CCTV footage and who Russian television stations initially claimed was the suspected attacker turned himself into the police after seeing himself on television, saying he was innocent. Interfax news agency reported that the man has since been eliminated from inquiries.

Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim Central Asian nation of six million, is Russia’s close political ally and hosts a Russian military airbase.

The Kyrgyz economy was severely affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting loss of its vast market. In 1990, some 98 per cent of Kyrgyz exports went to other parts of the Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan’s far wealthier neighbour, is officially a secular nation and a unitary, constitutional republic with a diverse cultural heritage. The country’s official language is Uzbek, a Turkic language written in the Latin alphabet and spoken natively by approximately 85 per cent of the population. Nevertheless, Russian remains the lingua franca. Ethnic Uzbeks constitute 81 per cent of the entire population of Uzbekistan. There are also substantial Ukrainian, Tajik and Kazakh, but the largest ethnic minority, the Russians, constitute 5.5 per cent of the population of Uzbekistan. Jews were a prosperous minority in urban centres controlling intellectual and economic life in the country. However, after race riots in the 1980s the Jews of Uzbekistan left the country for Israel. Today, an estimated 7,000 live in the capital Tashkent which once upon a time had a flourishing Jewish quarter called Andijan. There are also a few Jews today in the ancient cities of the fabled “Silk Road”: some 3,000 in Bukhara and only 700 in Samarkand.

With a population of 33 million people, Uzbekistan is by far the most populous of the former Soviet Central Asian republics. And, Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian state to border all the other four. Uzbekistan’s economy relies mainly on commodity production, including cotton, gold, uranium, and natural gas. Uzbekistan has the fourth largest gold deposits in the world.

Yet, it is a hotbed of Islamist militancy in Central Asia. Furthermore, ethnic Uzbeks in neighbouring Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan, tend to have a higher incidence of terrorism. Perhaps, this is partly due to the fact that it shares a border with Afghanistan, itself with a large Uzbek minority.

The St Petersburg explosion occurred near Sadovaya and Sennaya Ploshchad stations. The driver of the train won praise for deciding to continue to the next station, Technologichesky Institute, rather than stopping in the tunnel, a move that investigators said probably saved lives and made it easier for rescuers to reach the injured.

A second bomb, disguised as a fire extinguisher, was later reported to have been found at Ploshchad Vosstanaya metro station, which serves the mainline railway station that connects St Petersburg with Moscow.

Contemporary Russian politics is played out against the dark backdrop of terror. The St Petersburg terror attack will rally the Russian people more strongly around Putin regardless of their political persuasions. The explosive device that apparently failed to detonate was reported to contain about 1 kilogramme of TNT equivalent, prompting speculation that it was intended as the “main” attack.

Russia’s disaffected Muslims, even though most are secular and loyal to the Kremlin, will become more restive and haunted by a feeling of alienation.

The risk is that Putin’s populism coupled with divisive nationalism will increase political conservatism and aggravate Russians’ lack of confidence in their own Muslim compatriots’ motives. The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top investigative agency, opened a terrorism investigation and initially issued search warrants for two people in connection with the attack. ‬Needless to say, the main suspects are likely to be members of Russian Muslim communities.

Gazeta.ru, citing an anonymous source close to the investigation, reported that authorities have established that the bomber was “close to international terrorist organisations.”

Flowers are being laid in memory of the metro explosion victims tonight, including at the Leningrad Hero City memorial by the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

International sympathy for the victims was swift. Expressions of condolences to the grieving families of the St Petersburg terror attack were heartfelt.

United States President Donald Trump and President Putin agreed that “terrorism must be decisively and quickly defeated”.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he was “horrified” by the St Petersburg terrorist attack. “My sympathies are with the victims and their families,” he wrote on Twitter.

France’s interior ministry stepped up security measures on public transport in the Paris region after the St Petersburg attack.

French Interior Minister Mathias Fekl disclosed in a statement Monday the decision was a “measure of precaution” after the explosion in St Petersburg.

The first Islamic State attack in Russia came 19 August 2016 when two men carrying guns and axes and pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi attacked police at a checkpoint on the motorway in Balashika near Moscow. Both attackers were shot dead and two policemen were injured in the incident.

Prior to this, Russia has suffered several notable terrorist incidents. On 29 March 2010, the Moscow Metro bombings took place. Two suicide bombs detonated by women on trains 40 minutes apart during the morning rush hour killed 41 people and injured over 100. This incident provoked controversy that continues to this day.

Then on 24 January 2011, mistaking the date for the Russian Orthodox Church’s own Christmas on 7 January, the Domodedovo International Airport bombing killed 37 people and injured hundreds of innocent people when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt near the baggage carousel in the arrivals hall of Russia’s second busiest airport, 40 kilometres from Moscow city centre. A 20-year-old man from the North Caucasus was identified as the attacker.

Six years earlier, two female attackers carried out bomb attacks on two aircraft shortly after take-off from the airport.

On 31 October 2015 a Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 was also downed soon after take-off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. It was an international chartered passenger flight operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia. The Airbus A321-231 disintegrated above the northern Sinai. Shortly after the crash, the Islamic State’s Sinai branch, previously known as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for the incident on Twitter. A video statement by Abu Osama Al-Masri, the leader of the group’s Sinai branch, was followed by pictures of the bomb in Dabiq, Islamic State’s online magazine.

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