Belarussian authorities said Tuesday that they were hunting two suspects in yesterday’s subway bombing that killed 12 people and wounded more than 150.
No one has claimed responsibility for Belarus’s first major post-Soviet terrorist attack, and security experts say they are frankly baffled by it. Belarus, an industrial nation of 10 million wedged between Russia and Poland, has no significant ethnic or religious divides, nor any history of violent political opposition to the 17-year-old regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Analysts pointed out Tuesday that, in any case, virtually all of Mr. Lukashenko’s known opponents have been either in prison or under round-the-clock surveillance by the KGB security service since a major crackdown began in December against protesters alleging that Lukashenko’s huge reelection victory was rigged.
“It’s absurd to blame the opposition for something like this,” says Yaroslav Romanchuk, who was the presidential candidate for the liberal United Civil Party in the December polls. “All Belarussian political groups have always been peaceful, and none has ever called for violence or use of force against the authorities.”
Though authorities say they have composite drawings of two male suspects, they have offered no further information. On Tuesday police began installing metal detectors in some Minsk metro stations, and called for stepped up vigilance on the part of the population.
In televised remarks, Lukashenko suggested that the blast might have been “a gift from abroad” from unnamed foreign agents aiming to destabilize Belarus. But he added that “we should also look at ourselves.”
Appearing to be directly addressing Belarussian security officers, Lukashenko said it was necessary to “turn everything inside out” to catch the bombers. “I want to tell you guys that this is a very serious challenge, and an adequate response is needed…. I warned you that they would not give us a peaceful life. Who are they? I want you to answer this question at once.”
Many in Belarus’s beleaguered civil society say, whoever the real culprits may be, the brunt of security measures will almost certainly fall on Lukashenko’s identifiable opponents.
“People are shocked, and watching to see how this event will be used politically,” says Oleg Manayev, director of the independent Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Studies in Minsk. “Already it’s evident that there will be more pressure and repressions against democratic circles.”
Belarussian authorities have suggested that Monday’s attack might be linked to a 2008 explosion that injured 50 people at an Independence Day celebration in a Minsk park that was attended by Lukashenko. That crime was never solved.
Experts say that the bomb, a remote-controlled device equal to about 12 pounds of TNT and packed with nails and ball bearings, was not likely the work of a single individual or any group of amateurs.
“This kind of attack requires a lot of planning,” says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal that reports on the security services. “The perpetrators had to have some sort of specialized training and experience to carry this out. In Belarus there is no opposition group that has that kind of experience. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be anyone at all capable of doing that, if we exclude the authorities.”
Mr. Manayev says that many Belarussians are muttering the suspicion that Belarus’s security services may have staged the act, in a bid to divert popular discontent over the worsening economy, tightening police controls, and the growing isolation of Lukashenko’s regime following December’s disputed election.
“It may sound like a crazy conspiracy theory to Western ears, but in this part of the world people have long experience with states that abuse their citizens for their own political profit,” says Mr. Soldatov. “In Belarus many dissidents have simply disappeared in recent years, all normal freedoms are crushed and there is no reliable information in the media. We cannot know what actually happened, but it’s not entirely unreasonable if we see people adding the authorities to their own private list of suspects.”
Andrei Suzdaltsev, a Belarussian political exile and professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that Lukashenko desperately needs Russian economic aid, and he will now be able to approach the Kremlin as a fellow antiterrorist fighter.
“Lukashenko is a hero now, facing the same threat the Russians face,” he says. “He’s already talked to [President Dmitry] Medvedev and will soon be meeting with [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, and will try to convince them that the situation in Belarus is so difficult that it requires their assistance. And that much is true, Belarus is in the grip of a systemic crisis that the authorities are incapable of solving. One way or another, this terrorist act is the product of that.”