Come August, Russians brace for trouble. This has become a habit since August 1991, when hard-liners attempted an abortive coup to squash Russia's budding democracy. It was in August 2000 that the Kursk submarine sank, and the Ostankino TV tower in Moscow caught fire. It was in August 1999 that apartment houses were bombed in Moscow, the second Chechen war started, and the political fervor it stirred helped usher Vladimir Putin to the presidency.
Last night, the posh Neva Express train, favored by senior officials and business people, was blown up by a homemade bomb in the Novgorod area en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Some four pounds (2 kg) of explosives derailed the train, wiping out 800 meters of track. Sixty people were reported injured, about half-dozen in critical condition. Only the train's high speed saved hundreds from death.
"The threat of terrorism and extremism has not yet been eliminated," Nikolai Patrushev, Director of Russia's FSB (the KGB's heir), commented to Interfax wire agency. He has ordered his service to strengthen its control of Russia's sensitive installations. Patrushev said the train bomb was part of a pattern of violence that also included a spate of attacks on security forces and officials in the North Caucasus region around Chechnya.
Indeed, eight years of the Putin administration's attempts to pacify the region have not worked. Last night's bombings occurred against the backdrop of a rapidly worsening situation in the Caucasus. In Chechnya, shootouts and combat engagements between Russian forces, pro-Moscow Chechnyan authorities and Chenyan rebels opposed to Russian rule have been on the rise over the last several weeks. Just this morning, a rebel attack in the Chechen capital of Grozny left one police officer dead and another wounded. And such ethnic tensions are not confined to Chechnya. Mass violence between Russians and people from the Caucasus in various Russian cities has erupted frequently over the past year.
But it is still too early to conclude that Chechnyan rebels were responsible for this bomb. The last train bombing in Russia occurred in June 2005, on a Grozny-to-Moscow train, but the perpetrators were an ethnic Russian Nazi group. Putin prepares to stand down once his second presidential tenure expires in May 2008. Kremlin insiders don't know who will succeed him, but throughout history, acts of terror have proven useful rationales to seize or hold on to power. The apartment bombings of 1999 helped make Putin president. A seizure of a school by terrorists in the city of Beslan in September 2004 let him broaden his hold authoritarian grip on the state. Last night's train bombing may prove a precursor to a similar grab, as Russia elites gear up for the coming political season.