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Mumbai reflects Russian history

world Updated: Dec 05, 2008 23:11 IST
Fred Weir

Russia has not endured a major terrorist assault since the horrific Beslan school massacre four years ago, but memories have been painfully refreshed by the dramatic news coming out of Mumbai.

Russian terrorism experts caution that no comparison is exact, but say there are similarities between India’s ordeal and the wave of terrorist attacks Russia has undergone in the past decade.

There have been several spectacular terrorist strikes in the heart of Russia’s capital, that killed hundreds of people and left authorities looking ineffectual. These included a series of deadly apartment blasts in 1999, which killed 300 people, and the 2003 seizure of a downtown Moscow theatre with over 1,000 hostages.

In that instance, special forces stormed the theatre after pumping it full of a powerful knock-out gas. Though the operation succeeded, over 100 hostages died from effects of the gas.

Experts insist that Russia’s problems cannot be blamed on the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up 20 per cent of the population and has remained mostly loyal to Moscow. They stress that the troubles have been rooted in a particular locality, the mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya.

“It started with a separatist upsurge whose goal was independence for Chechnya, but the movement was gradually taken over by jihadists who saw themselves as part of a global struggle,” says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the Centre for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow. “There was a local dynamic, but it mutated under influence from outside.”

Chechnya declared independence as the USSR was collapsing in 1991, but was engulfed in war after former President Boris Yeltsin decided to “restore constitutional order” with a military invasion a few years later.

After two years of brutal conflict, the Russian army was defeated. But by then Chechnya’s nationalist leaders had been eclipsed by Islamist extremists, led by the warlord Shamil Basayev. Rather than work to build a viable state in Chechnya, they set out to spread Islamist rebellion around Russia.

“The Chechen jihadists had no interest in local nationalism, and wanted to prove themselves to their international sponsors. So they began exporting terrorism to surrounding region, and Moscow,” said Zvigelskaya.

Though Chechnya has since been pacified at enormous cost, few experts believe the terrorist threat has permanently abated in Russia.

“When we look at what’s happening in India, we see our own precarious situation as if in a mirror,” says Zvigelskaya.