From the October 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 10)


The War of Free Citizens

Sergei Markedonov, Literaturnaya Gazeta (literary weekly), Moscow, Russia, July 23-29, 2003

Russian soldier
A Russian soldier patrols the streets of Grozny, Chechya, Aug. 27, 2003 (Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP-Getty Images).
“It is necessary to revive effective work by the agent network in Chechnya! It is critical that the basic provisions of the military doctrine be reconsidered! The citizens of Russia must give up their freedoms in favor of the police state capable of protecting them!”

These sorts of appeals have been voiced over and over again in the press after another terrorist attack, this one at Tushino. [On July 5, two suicide bombers detonated explosions at a rock concert at Tushino, in northwestern Moscow, killing 15 people and injuring more than 50.—WPR] One could agree or disagree with those opinions were it not for one fundamental “but.”  All of the above-mentioned views are rooted in a failure to understand the confrontation of forces that Russia has found itself sucked into today.

With the exception of some notoriously extreme public figures, no one today questions that Russia is waging a war. But the questions are: What kind of war, and why is it a new war? Very few people bother to come up with answers to those questions. But it is obvious that Russia is fighting a new kind of war, and that in a post-Sept. 11 world, its main objects are not states or military-political blocs.

War has ceased to be a way of resolving international conflicts. Transnational terrorist organizations have thrown down the most serious challenge in modern history to the world’s leviathan states. Adversaries are no longer sorting out their differences on battlefields. The enemy is now dispersed, ready to strike at any time.

Moreover, modern terrorists are deliberately shifting the focuses of their deadly work. If in the 19th and 20th centuries it was primarily state officials who would fall prey to terrorist attacks, today ordinary people increasingly become targets.

However cynical it may sound, public servants getting murdered or wounded does appear logical in the public eye. As [Nikita Khrushchev’s] famous saying goes, “Once you pledge, don’t hedge.” If you have shouldered the burden of state-mandated authority, you are bound by definition to infringe on someone’s interests, ruin someone’s blood-sealed business, and become the target of reprisals.

It is a totally different matter when a restaurant customer or a concertgoer is killed in a terrorist attack. Deaths and injuries sustained by ordinary people increase panic, fear, and pessimistic sentiments tenfold. The purpose of such action is to force average people to their knees and hold them hostage to the horrors of terrorism.

For their part, governments also become slaves to public sentiment and make concessions to those who see any compromise as a demonstration of weakness. 

In that respect, the attitude that “it is none of my business” does not work. The idea that an average person who is not involved in politics should be able to stay out of harm’s way by leaving to state officials the struggle against terrorism is either naive or absurd in the new historical circumstances.

Another piece of wisdom says that if you are not involved in politics, politics will eventually involve you. This works perfectly. The conclusion is self-evident: Without public support for the state, there can be no success in a war on terrorism. The war on terrorism is therefore becoming the people’s war in its direct sense.

It is impossible to assign a militia officer or federal security service officer to every apartment building, just as there are not enough secret service agents out there to render all terrorists harmless (although the performance of intelligence services should be continuously improved).

But all the proclamations declaring public support for the state should be backed up with real actions. What can peaceful Russian citizens do to help in the fight against terrorism?

First of all, society must recover from the Chechen syndrome and should not lapse into escapism. There is no denying the fact that the military operation in the rebellious republic is looked upon by Russian society as a virtual reality, as someone else’s war, a horror movie that no one wants to watch. But at the same time, there is a burning desire for someone big and strong to step in and solve all the problems down there in the Caucasus, for everyone and in place of them. 

That is where “second of all” comes in. It is necessary to put an end to intellectual support for the organizers of violent upheavals. A special grudge can be held against people who wield great influence over public opinion.

It is to a large extent our intellectuals’ fault that Russian society perceives terrorism as something remote and the Chechen situation is viewed with indifference. Those who are prepared to let terrorists speak on the air are especially to blame, as are those who hap-pily leak sensitive information, such as data about armored personnel carriers and their movements.

It is time to overcome the false distinction between a strong state and civil society, powerful government and freedom. Terrible dictatorships were established when power was “lying scattered on the street.”  That was the case in Russia in October 1917, in Italy in the early ’20s, and in Germany in the ’30s of the past century.

A weak government is powerless in the face of attacks by terrorists and extremists. It is incapable of securing elementary rights and freedoms for its citizens. It is exactly this kind of weak government that creates a longing for strong authority and order. Concepts that are held sacred by every democrat and liberal, such as freedom, property, and the rule of law, are impossible without or outside of the state.

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