Posted by Curt on 21 August, 2016 at 7:00 am. 1 comment.


David Satter:

I believe that Vladimir Putin came to power as the result of an act of terror committed against his own people. The evidence is overwhelming that the apartment-house bombings in 1999 in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, which provided a pretext for the second Chechen war and catapulted Putin into the presidency, were carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Yet, to this day, an indifferent world has made little attempt to grasp the significance of what was the greatest political provocation since the burning of the Reichstag.

I have been trying to call attention to the facts behind the bombings since 1999. I consider this a moral obligation, because ignoring the fact that a man in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal came to power through an act of terror is highly dangerous in itself.

Russian human-rights defenders Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko also worked to shed light on the apartment bombings. But all of them were murdered between 2003 and 2006. By 2007, when I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the bombings, I was the only person publicly accusing the regime of responsibility who had not been killed.

The bombings terrorized Russia. The Russian authorities blamed Chechen rebels and thereby galvanized popular support for a new war in Chechnya. President Boris Yeltsin and his entourage were thoroughly hated for their role in the pillaging of the country. Putin, the head of the FSB, had just been named Yeltsin’s prime minister and achieved overnight popularity by vowing revenge against those who had murdered innocent civilians. He assumed direction of the war and, on the strength of initial successes, was elected president easily.

Almost from the start, however, there were doubts about the provenance of the bombings, which could not have been better calculated to rescue the fortunes of Yeltsin and his entourage. Suspicions deepened when a fifth bomb was discovered in the basement of a building in Ryazan, a city southeast of Moscow, and those who had placed it turned out to be not Chechen terrorists but agents of the FSB. After these agents were arrested by local police, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, said that the bomb had been a fake and that it had been planted in Ryazan as part of a training exercise. The bomb, however, tested positive for hexogen, the explosive used in the four successful apartment bombings. An investigation of the Ryazan incident was published in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and the public’s misgivings grew so widespread that the FSB agreed to a televised meeting between its top officials and residents of the affected building. The FSB in this way tried to demonstrate its openness, but the meeting was a disaster: It left the overwhelming impression that the incident in Ryazan was a failed political provocation.

Three days after the broadcast, Putin was elected. Attention to the Ryazan incident faded, and it began to appear that the bombings would become just the latest in the long list of Russia’s unsolved crimes.

In April 2000, a week after Putin’s election, I decided to go to Ryazan. The residents of 14–16 Novoselov Street, where the bomb had been planted, were suffering from heart problems and depression, and their children were afraid to go to sleep at night. Those I met were completely convinced that the incident had not been a training exercise. “Who can imagine such a thing?” asked Vladimir Vasiliev, whose initial reports of suspicious activity had led to the arrest of the FSB agents. “But the claim that it was a test makes no sense. Does it make sense to test people for vigilance at a time when the whole country is in a state of panic?”

Two motions in the Duma to investigate the Ryazan incident failed in the face of monolithic opposition from the pro-Putin Unity party. In February 2002, a third motion to investigate failed and a group of Duma deputies and human-rights activists organized a “public commission” to seek answers independently. Its chairman was Sergei Kovalyev, a Duma deputy and former Soviet dissident. Sergei Yushenkov, another Duma deputy, was the vice chairman. The commission had no official standing, but the Duma deputies could pose questions to the government in their individual capacity.

By 2002, the commission members were facing a rising tide of indifference. The second Chechen war was being prosecuted successfully and an economic boom was gaining momentum. Putin’s popularity rose to an all-time high.

Shortly after the commission began its work, however, an incident occurred that reminded Russians of just how mysterious the apartment bombings were. In March, the newspaper Noviye Izvestiya announced the result of its investigation into the fact that Gennady Seleznev, the speaker of the Duma and a close associate of Putin, had announced the bombing in Volgodonsk on September 13 — three days before it occurred. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic party, told journalists that same day what Seleznev had said, but they could not confirm it, so it was not reported. On September 16, however, the building in Volgodonsk really was blown up, and on September 17 Zhirinovsky demanded an explanation of how Seleznev had known about the bombing in advance.

“Do you see what is happening in this country?” he said, shouting and gesticulating from the podium in the Duma. “You say an apartment building was blown up on Monday and it explodes on Thursday. This can be evaluated as a provocation.” Seleznev avoided responding, and Zhirinovsky had his microphone turned off when he persisted in demanding an explanation.

In March 2002, however, Noviye Izvestiya succeeded in obtaining the transcript of what Seleznev had said on September 13, 1999. His precise words were: “Here is a communication which they transmit. According to a report from Rostov-on-Don today, this past night, an apartment house was blown up in the city of Volgodonsk.” The newspaper asked him who had informed him about the bombing in Volgodonsk three days before it happened. He answered, “Believe me, not [exiled oligarch Boris] Berezovsky,” who had accused Putin of orchestrating the bombing. In this way, he indicated that he was well aware of who, in reality, had given him the information.

Seleznev then told the newspaper that, on September 13, he had been referring to an explosion on September 15 that was part of a war between criminal gangs and had not claimed any victims. Seleznev’s explanation, however, raised more questions than it answered. It was hard to understand why such an insignificant incident needed to be reported to the speaker of the Duma at a time when apartment buildings were being blown up, with hundreds of deaths. And even if Seleznev had been referring to a minor criminal conflict in Volgodonsk, how was it possible that he had been informed about it two days in advance?

A new source of accusations against Putin and the FSB emerged in London. Berezovsky, who had been instrumental in facilitating Putin’s rise to power but then had gone into exile after being deprived of his influence, held a press conference on March 5, 2002, in which he accused the FSB of carrying out the bombings with Putin’s complicity in order to justify a second Chechen war.

The apartment bombings took place while Putin was prime minister and the head of the FSB was Nikolai Patrushev, his longtime protégé. But the planning for such a complex operation would have had to begin much earlier, before Putin became prime minister, at a time when Berezovsky was one of the most powerful members of the leadership. Berezovsky played a critical role in Putin’s ascent, making the case to members of the Yeltsin entourage that Putin should become prime minister. Berezovsky’s attitude toward Putin changed only when Putin acted to remove him from power. Berezovsky began to hint and then, in December 2001, to state openly that the apartment bombings had been carried out by the FSB, with the complicity of Putin.

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