Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 46

Yesterday Boris Berezovsky held his long-awaited press conference to present what he had promised would be evidence proving that Russia’s special services were behind the September 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. Those terrorist acts killed more than 200 people and provided one of the main pretexts for Moscow’s military intervention in Chechnya. The self-exiled tycoon’s London press conference, however, failed to deliver a decisive blow against his nemeses, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and its most illustrious alumnus, President Vladimir Putin. It was able only to add new bits of circumstantial evidence for his allegation of FSB complicity in the bombings. These bits are interesting but scarcely conclusive.

Perhaps the main new element in Berezovsky’s case was the testimony of Nikita Chekulin, the former acting head of the Russian Conversion Explosives Center (Roskonversvzryvtsentr), a research institute connected with the Education Ministry. In a notarized statement distributed at the press conference, Chekulin claimed to have documentary evidence of a “secret scheme for the theft of explosive substances from military warehouses and the participation of high officials of the Russian government in concealing facts and preventing an investigation in this regard.” Chekulin claimed that in 1999-2000 Roskonversvzryvtsentr purchased “significant quantities” of the explosive hexogen and that “tons” of this material was sent in bogusly marked containers to “various cover institutions in the regions.” The Education Ministry, according to Chekulin, carried out an internal investigation of the incident, after which Education Minister Vladimir Filipov requested that the Federal Security Service (FSB) be brought in to investigate. FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, however, ordered that such an investigation not be carried out, Chekulin claimed, and Patrushev’s deputy, Yury Zaostrovtsev, informed Filipov of this decision.

While interesting, Chekulin’s allegations do not include any specific link between the allegedly stolen explosives and the September 1999 apartment building bombings. There are other hazy elements. Chekulin, for example, claims that in 2000 he was “recruited” by the FSB’s antiterrorism department, but gives no reason for what purpose he was recruited or what this had to do with the scandal surrounding the 1999 apartment building bombings. Indeed, Chekulin was quoted as saying after yesterday’s press conference that the copies of official documents in his possession have no direct bearing on the 1999 terrorist attacks (Moscow Times, Kommersant, March 6;, March 5).

Yesterday’s press conference also included a nine-minute fragment from a fifty-two-minute documentary film, “Assassination of Russia,” soon to be released in its entirety by a French company, Transparences Productions. The film reportedly focuses on the mystery surrounding the explosives allegedly found in an apartment building in the city of Ryazan on September 22, 1999. Local law enforcement officials there initially claimed that the bags of powder found in the building along with a detonator and timing device contained hexogen. Patrushev, however, subsequently claimed that they were simply filled with sugar and that the whole incident had been a security training exercise. In the excerpt from the documentary shown during yesterday’s press conference, a telephone operator in Ryazan spoke of a telephone call made about “the transfer” of the three people–two men and a woman–who were caught after placing the “sugar” sacks in the apartment building and arrested by local police. According to the operator, the call came from a number in Moscow starting with “224”, the prefix used by offices in the Kremlin and the FSB’s headquarters at Lubyanka Square (Kommersant, March 6).

According to earlier accounts, including an investigation carried out by NTV television and aired in March 2000, a resident of the apartment block spotted the three suspects acting suspiciously outside the Ryazan apartment building at 5:30 AM on the morning of the incident. They were reportedly getting into a car whose front number plate had been covered with a piece of paper marked “62” (Ryazan’s regional code), and whose rear plate was marked with Moscow’s regional code. The witness said that he saw one of the men get out of the car and heard the woman in the car ask, “Have you done everything?” According to these reports, following their arrest by local police, the three suspects presented FSB identity cards and were quickly released after intervention by the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow (Observer [London], March 12, 2000). Many of these details were subsequently recounted in the book “Blowing up Russia,” written by former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko and historian Yury Fel’shtinsky (see the Monitor, August 29, 2001). That book, which was apparently written with Berezovsky’s support and encouragement, was part of the “evidence” presented at yesterday’s press conference.

In various interviews over the last several months, Berezovsky claimed that he had “facts” showing that Nikolai Patrushev and other FSB officials were involved in the apartment building bombings. Berezovsky claimed on several occasions his evidence for this allegation was “at least as good as what the United States has against Osama bin Laden,” as he put it in one interview (see the Monitor, February 7, 22). Yet the evidence he presented yesterday fell well short of these claims. What is more, Berezovsky, who originally said he had no evidence that Putin, who was prime minister at the time of the 1999 bombings, was involved in them, strongly implied in a recent interview with France’s Le Figaro that Putin had given the order to blow up the buildings. Berezovsky presented no evidence whatsoever for this in yesterday’s press conference. He claimed, nonetheless, that Putin “at a minimum” knew that the FSB “was involved in the bombings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Ryazan,” and that the president’s failure to order an investigation constituted a cover-up (Moscow Times, March 6).