Russia's Long (and Brutal) War on Terror

Unlike Western nations confronting terrorism in their midst, the Kremlin has little time for legal niceties and human rights as it deals with an Islamist insurgency. But does brutality work?

  • Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

    Rasul Magomedov's daughter Maryam Sharipova was one of the March 29 bombers

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    Russians seem to take comfort from this paternalistic message. Dubin's polling shows that Putin's approval ratings hovered around 80% before and after the latest attacks, as it had through previous national tragedies. "It's as if we had several Katrinas and the approval rating of the President and Prime Minister remained at 80%," says Lipman.

    The Downside of Paternalism

    But faith in Medvedev and Putin doesn't extend to the institutions below them, which means few Russians are inclined to play their part in the war on terrorism. New Yorkers are familiar with signs saying "If you see something, say something," and it was a street vendor in Times Square who first alerted the police to the smoldering SUV bomb that failed to detonate in May. Russians have little trust in their police: in one survey, 55% said the government could do nothing to protect Russians from terrorism and 24% said they think the security services themselves may have played a role in the metro attacks.

    This mistrust of the authorities is even more acute in Moscow's immigrant communities, where Russian law enforcement--unlike police in, say, New York City or London--has failed to cultivate informants and maintain other useful relationships. Svetlana Gannushkina, a human-rights worker and advocate for Moscow's immigrant communities, says that after earlier attacks, it was "simply a hunt" throughout Moscow for Chechens, even Georgians--anyone from the Caucasus. Security analyst Andrei Soldatov says xenophobia among officials is "the biggest problem" in the war on terrorism. "Law enforcement intimidates the North Caucasians all the time. There's no trust," he says. "But if you want to fight terrorism, you have to work closely with those communities."

    A visit to Friday services at the Moscow Central Mosque shows just how marginalized the Muslim diaspora in Moscow is. The barricaded street leading up to the mosque is not supposed to be prayer space, but hundreds of worshippers roll out their prayer rugs on the asphalt. Head imam Ildar Alyautdinov explains that in a city with 2 million Muslims, the authorities have allowed only three mosques. "You can talk about human rights," he says, "but we are not allowed to worship here."

    There are more acute injustices--particularly for those immigrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus who fall victim to xenophobic violence. SOVA, a human-rights group, counted 19 murders committed by right-wing extremists in Russia in the first half of 2010, down from 50 during the same period in 2009. The apparent decrease may be due to stepped-up pressure on extreme nationalist groups, but Alyautdinov says the government still doesn't offer enough protection from vigilantes. When I meet with leaders of the ultranationalist group Russky Obraz (Russian Way)--all carrying daggers, one with a swastika tattoo on his calf--they say they don't encourage violence. But Evgeny Valyaev, one of the leaders, says, "It's no secret that the North Caucasians are the foundation and root of terror in Russia." Adds his compatriot Iliya Goryachev: "The [Muslim] community here does serve as an incubator for terrorism ... They have to respect our human rights if they want us to respect theirs."

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