Monday 30 December 2013

Even More Devastating Consequences

The Russian city of Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) has been the site of carnage twice in 24 hours, as suicide bombers – believed to be separatists from the North Caucasus – attacked a train station and then a bus. Volgograd has already been a target once before this year, when a female suicide bomber blew up a bus in October.

With the Sochi Games just weeks away, the security threat is a concern – to put it mildly. Given the relative proximity of Volgograd to Sochi, the attacks would appear to support the theory that security at the Winter Olympic host city remains tight. Sochi is too hard a target for the terrorists right now.

It is still hard to take in the scale of the devastation over the last two days. My first impulse is simply to grieve.

Nonetheless, I am braced for the question that is put to me every single time a terror attack occurs in Russia. In the aftermath, at least one person will ask me the inevitable: "Why doesn't Russia just let the North Caucasus go?"

It's a question I'm used to hearing, but it gets no less irritating.

To say that the separatist movements in the region are led by people who subscribe to an extremist ideology is to say nothing at all. Letting them run things will bring more death and chaos – and this death and chaos will not remain self-contained.

As a Dagestani acquaintance of mine put it recently: "Most people abroad don't even realise just how much worse things can get over there – and how quickly too."

Chechen autonomy has hardly proved a great success. It is no use pinning the blame solely on the Russian government for instability in the republic during those years of de facto independence.

Likewise, neither is the North Caucasus some sort of happy monolith where residents are going to come together should the federal authorities leave them to it. Dagestan in particular is dealing with a great deal of ethnic and sectarian tension.

Russia is a huge country and many of its problems are a result of its size. Acts of terrorism like this are prime examples of how difficult it is to keep secure such a vast territory – with its incredible ethnic diversity, lack of cohesive society, and major problems with infrastructure.

Still, whenever I ask people if they have a coherent alternative to the current setup, their eyes tend to glaze over. At best, they will manage something along the lines of, "Well, it's all the Kremlin's fault anyway". That's a popular enough sentiment, but repeating it over and over again won't change anything.

I find it oddly comforting as we begin to grieve again to remember that terror is a global phenomenon, with no clear frontlines, and that we are all at risk. It's a risk I often contemplate on the crowded Moscow metro, as I catch myself scanning the faces of my fellow passengers, wondering if any of them are potentially threatening (the last suicide attacks on the Moscow metro were in 2010 – not that long ago).

It is something I do pretty much unconsciously these days, alongside listening to angry hip-hop on my iPod and checking to make sure no one's trying to nick my wallet. At the very least, it keeps me occupied.

Back when Volgograd was still known as Stalingrad, the Nazi enemy wore a distinct uniform and most of the time it was pretty clear who one needed to be shooting at. Yet it was an infinitely more horrifying time nonetheless.

At this point in history, a great many nations, not only Russia, seem stuck with a wearying status quo, this ebbing and flowing battle with low-grade terror.

But we are also coming to recognise that concessions to separatism, whether in the North Caucasus or elsewhere, could only have even more devastating consequences.

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