I traveled through a Moscow airport this weekend. Security checks were tight, but the passenger flow was normal.
Indeed, on the evening of last week’s suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport, passenger jets continued landing and taking off. At the main entrance, ambulances continued ferrying away the 35 dead and 168 wounded. The bomb blasted area, the waiting zone for international arrivals, was blocked from view by blue plastic sheets. Nearby, clerks at taxi counters and mobile phone rental stands went back to their work shifts.
One Muscovite captured the local fatalism, saying: “If you are fated to hang, don’t worry about drowning.”
Over the last year, terrorists caused the deadly derailing of a luxury train to St. Petersburg and exploded bombs in Moscow subway cars packed with morning rush hour commuters.
Facing seemingly endless attacks by Islamic radicals from the Russia’s southern fringe, some Muscovites trudge along, acting as if they were living through a slow motion version of the London Blitz of 1940-41. Last weekend, false bomb reports forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of shoppers from malls in suburban Moscow, creating massive traffic jams that stretched for miles through the winter dark.
This week, the 30,000 Russians lucky enough to be on vacation in Egypt are refusing to go home early.
And in a Moscow winter, fatalism mixes with cynicism in a kind of toxic mental slush. Two days after the airport bombing, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets polled readers about the authors of the bombing. The largest group, 41 percent, said they suspected it was organized by Russia’s security services.
But foreigners here don’t share the same fatalism, or cynicism. They worry that they are now bulls’ eyes.
Over the weekend, Russian authorities officially announced that foreigners were the targets of the January 24 airport bombing. The suspect, a 20-year-old man from Russia’s southern Caucasus, lingered in the area for 15 minutes, apparently waiting for a critical mass of foreign visitors before blowing himself up with the equivalent of three kilograms of TNT.
By killing foreigners, Russia’s Islamic extremists hit a publicity home run.
Last year, the number of terrorists attacks doubled in the Caucasus. Most merited a few lines at best in Moscow newspapers, and less in the world press. The Moscow metro bombings of April briefly flared up — and then flared down — in the world press.
But by killing a Briton, a German, an Austrian, and a promising Ukrainian playwright in Moscow’s main, showcase international airport, the terrorists created a story with staying power.
For the first time in memory, Russian terrorists are targeting foreigners.
Now foreigners living here worry: will their gathering places be the next soft target for what seems like a war without end?
The attacks cause similar worries for the Kremlin, which is trying to pull Russia out of its shell of isolation. The bombing came the day before Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was to travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to woo foreign investors. One pet project was to lure $15 billion in foreign investment to build five ski areas in the Caucasus. The president went ahead with his visit and the investor pitch, but the timing could not have been worse.
Looking ahead, Russia is to throw open its doors for a series of high profile, international sporting events – the Universiade, or world university games, in 2013; the Winter Olympic Games in 2014; and, in 13 Russian cities, the World Cup in 2018.
Violence has bubbled in the Caucasus for 20 years now. There is no reason to believe that peace will magically descend in time for these world gatherings on Russian soil.
Two novelties for Russia — good detective work and Israeli-standard security measures — will be needed to get the country – and its foreign visitors through unscathed.