A remotely detonated explosion ripped through Minsk’s central metro station at rush hour Monday evening, killing at least 12 and injuring 149 in a supposed act of terror.
Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko said those responsible for the attack on Belarus, a country with no record of Islamic extremism or terrorism of this scale, may have come from home or abroad. Several suspects were arrested on Tuesday, Deputy General Prosecutor Andrei Shved told journalists without revealing their identities.
"I don't rule out that this gift was brought from abroad. But we have to look at home. This is important,” Lukashenko said of the attack, which hit Belarus as it grapples with a deep economic crisis that analysts say could force a default of the Belarusian ruble. “They will not give us a peaceful life. I warned you about this. Who are they? I urge you to find an answer to this question,” said Lukashenko in slightly muddled comments at a meeting of the KGB security services last night.
The mustachioed ex-farm boss appeared visibly shaken as he arrived at the grisly scene of the explosion with his six-year-old son Kolya to lay flowers Monday night. The bomb, packed with nails and ball bearings, was concealed under a platform bench in the center of Oktyabrskaya metro station and detonated at 17:55 (15:55 GMT) in the vicinity of an estimated 300 commuters.
“There is nothing to hide,” said Lukashenko, who over his 16 years rein has preached that stability and peace in Belarus are preferable to what he sees as the mutually exclusive concept of democracy. “Only we are responsible for this event. Unlike before, we did not provide peace even in a key place in our capital. The guilt lies with us. We must do everything so that people do not think that we are not worth the bread provided by the state.”
The attack has left analysts and politicians stumped, as they ponder what groups had the resources to carry out such an attack in a country that is tightly controlled by the police and that has no history of large-scale terrorism. Lukashenko mooted a connection between the metro bombing and another attack on Independence Day in July 2008. The explosion injured 40 and killed no one.
As the isolated managed economy begins to splutter after 20 years of minimal post-Soviet reform, the blogosphere has mooted a state hand in the bombing that could legitimize a government crackdown. Yaroslaw Romanchuk, a candidate in the December 2010 presidential elections that ended in a tough clampdown and jailing of opposition figures, said he could not be sure. “This is the first terrorist attack of this scale and magnitude in Belarus,” said Romanchuk. “But it’s difficult to fathom a situation when you can sacrifice the lives of dozens of people for this kind of short-term gain. I would like to think it is something different. It’s too early to say who is behind the attack and what will follow.”
Yana Kobzova, a Belarus expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, ruled out that Lukashenko himself had an interest in the attack. “He already has opposition people in prison, the political trials are on the way and he doesn’t need to instill more fear in society - they are already afraid. The political opposition is decimated. I wouldn’t say that this is something that he has planned as a pretext for tightening the screws.”
Listing the other theories being touted in a “really, really tense and emotional Belarus,” Romanchuk mentioned oblique “outside forces” tied to Russia; anarchist Belarusians from nationalist circles who want to prevent Lukashenko being forced into signing contracts with Russia; and someone from the opposition appalled with the scale of government repression.
Lev Margolin, the deputy chairman of the United Civil Party, also said: “I don’t rule out the possibility that it is linked with the growing integration of Belarus and Russia.” He said it was too early to tell, though.
Tightening the screws
Nonetheless, speaking to the Kommersant news daily, prominent journalist Pavel Sheremet said that the terrorist attack could play into the hands of the authorities who would cherish the chance for a crackdown as a precaution against possible unrest rocked by Belarus’ economic woes. The last attack in July 2008 became the pretext for the authorities to fingerprint Belarus’ male population en masse. About 1.4 million prints were originally taken, and on April 2010 a law was passed in Belarus requiring all men of military age between 18 and 55 years to be fingerprinted. No one was ever apprehended for the crime.
But opposition politicians deny that the attack will help Belarus’ strongman leader secure himself politically. “I don’t think it will help Lukashenko rally the people around him,” said Lev Margolin. “The event is sad and tragic, and it will be talked about for a while and then it will go quiet. Then everyday problems like inflation and the currency problems will return. Snuffing these problems out is not going to be feasible.” Analysts went further. “I don’t think it’s going to help Lukashenko for one simple reason,” said Kobzova. “For the last 16 years Lukashenko has promoted a single image of Belarus as an island of stability. This was the bedrock of his regime.”
She said that the responsibility could still lie with an independent government agency. “There are many theories. It could have been the KGB. It has to have been someone with the capacity to do it. The opposition could not do it - it would be too difficult for them to pull it off. It will be interesting to watch who Lukashenko blames.”
The accomplished master at playing off Russia against the West will be on his best behavior as he awaits a crucial $3.5 billion bailout package from Russia, which will almost triple Belarus’ currency reserves. “Lukashenko needs the West’s credit and he needs Russian credit. Moreover, it is one thing to accuse Russia of imperialism, but it’s quite another to accuse it of terrorism,” said Kobzova.
Romanchuk said that the authorities will have to invite foreign experts to analyze the attack simply to deflect speculation that they were implicated. On Tuesday Russia, Israel and the United Kingdom sent teams of bomb specialists to the post-Soviet nation of ten million.
If some section of the government is deemed to have had a hand in the bombing, it will in all likelihood correlate to political infighting within Belarus’ elite. As Belarus becomes increasingly strapped for cash, infighting has increased since there is “less pie to go round,” and certain influential behind-the-scenes players contemplate privatizing state assets and thus see Lukashenko as an obstacle, said Kobzova. Lukashenko is also badly placed to negotiate foreign loans for the country, as the West perceives him as the “last dictator in Europe.” “Whoever has done it is not going to help Lukashenko at all. I don’t think he’s in control. The situation is changing and it is not changing in Lukashenko’s favor at all,” said Kobzova.
Nonetheless, the Belarusian elite has cards left to play in the economic crisis in the form of various state-owned assets, including their oil refineries. “As soon as the government knows that it is going to collapse, they will do something. They still have quite a few profitable companies. If they need fast money, then they can sell it,” said Kobzova.
MOSCOW, April 12 (Tom Balmforth, Russia Profile)