Thursday, September 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: What Really Happened in Ryazan in September 1999?

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 25 – Nine years ago this week, a series of still mysterious events occurred in Ryazan that changed the course of Russia’s history and continue to raise questions about Vladimir Putin, his understanding of what Russian rulers can do, and hence the legitimacy of his place at the top of the Russian political system since that time.
Because these questions are so sensitive and because those who raise them have often come to a bad end, few in Russia or abroad have been willing to address them in the past, and few are likely to address them now, even though some current trends in Russian politics makes doing so more important than ever before.
An exception is Moscow commentator Sergey Antipov who has written a detailed chronology of the Ryazan cases, one that leaves many questions about those events unanswered but that demonstrates that the official versions are at a minimum inconsistent and more likely mostly false (
Those events in Ryazan were immediately preceded by apartment bombings in Moscow on August 31 which claimed one life, in Buinaksk where 62 people died on September 4, in Moscow where 94 people died on September 9, again in Moscow where 119 people died on September 13, and in Volgodonsk where 17 people died on September 16.
Russian officials and Russian media unanimously blamed the Chechens for these actions, Antipov points out, even though the modus operandi of this violence was different than any the Chechens had employed before and even though the Russian authorities did not produce the perpetrators or other evidence to back up these charges.
Then came the events in Ryazan which raised new questions about the official version of events not only there but in all the other apartment bombings at that time.
On the evening of September 22, residents of an apartment block in Ryazan noticed that they had seen someone put something in the basement of that building. They reported this to the militia. The militia arrived and found three 50 kilogram sacks containing what appeared to be explosives with a detonator set for 5:30 am the following morning.
The militia evacuated almost all the residents of the building, Antipov continues, and local FSB chief Major General Aleksandr Sergeyev, whose officers had been called to identify the explosives, praised the local people for preventing what could easily have been the most deadly terrorist attack yet.
Sergeyev’s version of events was broadcast by Russian information agencies and media outlets on September 23, generating enormous popular anger at the Chechens and providing support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s decision to renew the Chechen war by bombing Grozny on that date.
And in the afternoon of the 23rd, Antipov reports, the authorities in Ryazan put the city under virtual martial law and conducted a city-wide search for “the Chechen terrorists” who according to officials had to be behind the terrorist act that vigilant citizens and the militia had prevented.
But the very next day, the official version of what had happened in Ryazan began to fall apart. Within a half hour of each other, two members of the Russian government contradicted each other as to what had happened in that central Russian city. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo repeated the version which held that the authorities had prevented a terrorist act.
FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev, however, contradicted him. He said that what had happened in Ryazan was a training exercise and that the “explosives: that officials there claimed to have found was in fact sugar. His story, that Ryazan was a training exercise, rapidly displaced the claim that quick-thinking citizens and local officials had blocked a terrorist exercise.
Patrushev’s declaration not only contradicted the Russian media but also the statements of Putin. And Antipov reasonably asks how Patrushev could remain in his post after making that declaration and suggests that this combination of developments points to a more sinister explanation.
And that is this: “Putin knew that Patrushev was conducted an operating to blow up an apartment block in Ryazan,” Antipov argues. Because of action’s sensitivity – one that would have led to the deaths of hundreds of Russian citizens – the central FSB did not inform the local FSB whose officers “saw with their own eyes” that the explosives and detonator were “genuine.”
To support this new version of events, the FSB began the same day to organize “training exercises” throughout Russia to test “the vigilance of the population,” a move that not only received great attention from the media, Antipov continues, but gave Patrushev and his operatives an alibi for what it appears they had done.
But even at the time, observers noted that this version of events did not hold water. The central FSB had not prepared a training exercise in Ryazan in the way that they normally did or claimed that they had. And consequently, by failing to do so, its officers had put lives at risk even if they had done what they claimed to have done, a crime for which no one was charged.
Since that time, Antipov points out, Putin and his government have done what they can to prevent any serious investigation. Moscow classified its own investigation of the events as “secret” thus putting it beyond the reach of journalists and independent investigators and violating paragraph seven of the law on state secrets.
Attempts by deputies in the Duma in March 2000 to find out more were blocked by pro-Kremlin deputies. Two members who called for an investigationmdied after being attacked. Independent investigator Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested. And then the deaths of Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Litvinenko, both of whom had raised questions about Ryazan.
Several Chechens were eventually arrested and charged with planning the terrorist acts in Russian cities including possibly Ryazan – thus contradicting the officials’ contradictions – but their trials were closed, and whatever evidence the authorities produced before the judges was not shared with the public.
In Antipov’s view, the Ryazan events were an act of the FSB designed to advance its interests by reigniting the war in Chechnya and pushing forward the career of Vladimir Putin. Without these terrorist actions, neither would have occurred. There was little stomach among Russians for more fighting in the Caucasus and little support for the unknown KGB officer.
In the wake of these events, Russians almost unanimously backed the new war effort, and Putin’s rating “rose from 10 percent to 80 percent.”
For most people, including many Russians despite their own national history, the notion that the security services either on their own or on orders from above would be willing to kill several hundred of their own citizens for political goals is so horrific that they are unwilling to consider the possibility, whatever evidence there is to support such a version of events.
Clearly, and like those who have explored the Ryazan events in the past, Antipov has not proved his case. But he has raised reasonable doubts about the official versions of events in Ryazan and hence about the role of officials in them. And because those officials are still in positions of power, it is imperative that the Ryazan case be reopened before it can be repeated.

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