Was suspected St. Petersburg metro bomber Akbarjon Jalilov a podstavnoe litzo, a patsy in a horrific ploy by the government of Vladimir Putin to manipulate and manage the Russian population? That’s the question being asked in the ashkanas, classrooms, supermarket lines, and taxi back seats of Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, Jalilov’s homeland. (Jalilov acquired Russian citizenship in 2011, and as required by Kyrgyzstani law probably would have relinquished his original citizenship in the process. For its part, the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Foreign denies that he ever possessed a Kyrgyzstani passport.)
At the absurd end of the conspiracy theory spectrum is the idea that Jalilov is alive, while at the opposite and scarier end is that his suicide attack was an inside job by the Russian government – scarier because, with a history as pockmarked by conspiracies genuine and sordid as the former Soviet Union’s, there is an element of plausibility to it. (Conspiracy theories being the ephemeral phenomena they are, it can be notoriously difficult to pin down in print form, even online. The two examples here are actually from outside Kyrgyzstan.)
Thus the necessity, however distasteful, for a logic-check.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Barring the emergence of important evidence (which, anyway, could be doctored by corrupt authorities, so the thinking goes) does the idea that Jalilov was really a tool of the powerful actually make sense? The short answer is no. The Putin government would need to be uncharacteristically and disastrously unaware of the tides of Russian public opinion to commit such an atrocity.
First, the Theory
The main line of thinking I have encountered here in Bishkek is as follows: the Putin government needs a new external enemy with which to distract the Russian population. Struggling to contain the damage of sanctions and recession, Moscow has found itself rocked recently by major protests from truck drivers and middle-class youth spurred by governmental malpractice and corruption. Unfortunately, the viable candidates for enemy status are running out.
First the external enemy were “fascists” in Ukraine, who had overthrown the pro-Russian government in 2014 and began a campaign of extermination against Russophones. Then came the United States, the old enemy, who backed the new enemy, apparently for no other reason than an implacable desire to prevent Russia’s return to global stature.
These have proven to be flawed strawmen. Ultimately, whatever the perceived crimes of the Ukrainian and American governments, a close look at public opinion data suggests that this perception does not necessarily extend to everyday Ukrainians and Americans. In fact, a recent vox-pop piece by Vox journalist Ksenia Anske shows that Russians apply the same cynicism they harbor toward Moscow to Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency has also vastly complicated the American government’s utility as an enemy. His effusively positive feelings toward Russia were hyped by Russian media and his status as a “self-made” political success story could ironically threaten to reinforce the perceived role of insider connections in Russia’s “upravlyayemaya demokratiya” (“managed democracy”).
Who to blame, then? Chechnya will no longer work because of Putin’s vaunted comradeship with Chechen strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The European Union and China would not work at all, as it would be imprudent to vilify one’s main trade partners. Most other countries, including Syria, are simply too far away.
Central Asia, however, is right next door. It also has long been the target of racism by many Russians – painted as a land of steppe, mountains, and nomadic barbarism during the Tsarist era, a black hole for rubles during the Communist era, and today a fount of disease-bringing prostitutes and job-competing cheap laborers. Central Asians also have the wrong religion: Islam.
Second, the Sense
Examining conspiracy theories is an interesting exercise if for no other reason than it reveals something about the kind of information that a population has absorbed, and not only how much people really are paying attention to events, but what they are specifically paying attention to.
Kyrgyzstanis are veritably drowning in Russian state media, and hence are systematically subjected to the particular worldview it is seeking to cultivate. Yet, I have often heard it said, among the educated and uneducated alike, “Putin yevraziyskiy zagranitsa, natsionalist doma” – “Putin is a Eurasianist abroad, a nationalist at home.”
The reference is to the recently-established Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member. Although both within and without Central Asia analysts debate whether the EEU is a step toward the eventual re-creation of the Soviet Union, all the signs point in the direction that it is certainly a key feature of Putin’s strategy to sustain Russia’s ailing economy.
The EEU can be understood as an attempt to formalize the economic closed loop that exists between Russia and Central Asia, whose young supply a cheap labor force for the former’s industries, producing goods and services which their families back home purchase using the remittances they send.
Although the EEU’s member-states have been suffering diminishing returns from the very beginning, it provides an economic lifeline for Russia and possibly serves the function of “demographic safety valve” for politically disgruntled Kyrgyzstan.
However, Putin must walk a tightrope between the macroeconomic reality of Russia and the intense anti-Central Asian animus of much of his base of support, especially the unemployed male working-class. If the recent protests have proved anything, it is that Russians’ “jaw-droppingly high” approval of the Putin government does have a limit, and that limit is perceived favoritism, whether toward elites or toward immigrants.
And so we come to the rub: considering the importance of the EEU and the tinder-box of public opinion toward Central Asian immigration, why would Putin and his government dare risk throwing dynamite into the situation by manufacturing a Central Asian terrorist plot? Although nothing is impossible, it seems highly improbable.
How, then, to make sense of the attractiveness of the idea that Jalilov was ultimately a patsy? My best guess is this: at work here may really be the insecurities of Kyrgyzstan’s people about the negative perceptions of their region being broadcast by the very Russian media they themselves are consuming in enormous amounts.