Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 214

Law enforcement authorities in Poland have reportedly arrested twenty-four members of a criminal group which had been trafficking contraband Russian weapons in Western Europe. While a majority of those detained were Polish, the two heads of the group were Russian citizens from the North Caucasus–a Dagestani and a Chechen. The band reportedly carried out a number of bold criminal acts, including the August 8 bombing of the pedestrian underpass at Moscow’s Pushkin Square, which killed twelve people. Immediately after the bombing, investigators worked on the assumption that the bombing was carried out by Chechens. The investigators based their belief on testimony given by eyewitnesses, who reported having seen several suspicious persons in the underpass several minutes before the blast. A saleswoman from one of the commercial stalls in the underpass reported that she had seen a man leave a shopping bag next to one of the stalls on the pretext that he had to go find a foreign currency exchange. Police and detained several residents of the Caucasus on suspicion of involvement in the blast, but subsequently let them go (see the Monitor, August 9-10). More recently, investigators began leaning toward the theory that the explosion was the result of a turf war between criminal groups over the stalls in the underpass. On October 11, however, the Moscow police again announced its belief that the August 8 bombing was a case of terrorism.

The arrests in Poland could mark the first instance in which the perpetrators of a terrorist act in the Russian capital are punished. No one, for example, was ever convicted for the separate bombings of two Moscow trolley buses in July 1996, which wounded dozens of people, some of them seriously. What is more, if the Polish authorities prove their case, it suggests that the trade in contraband weapons connected with the North Caucasus has become an international business. If this turns out to be true, the Russian authorities are likely to use the case to argue that the Chechen war is no longer simply a domestic Russian problem, but a security issue affecting other states in Europe.