James Marson in Kyiv -
When two bombs exploded in Makiyivka, a city in Ukraine's industrial east, in the early hours of January 20, the authorities - who like to tout the "stability" they have brought to the country - seemed to sense a situation spinning out of their control.
A letter left by the bombers, a copy of which was seen by bne, demanded €4.2m in 500 euro bills and threatened five more explosions at 5:00 pm in public places if the money wasn't paid. The bombers said they were a "group of people who are acting against the authorities. "People close to us have died. We have nothing to lose," the note read.
The authorities scrambled to get the money together to pay off the bombers, according to a bne source close to the investigation. By the evening, President Viktor Yanukovych had cut short his visit to Japan to take control of the situation.
In the end, no bombs went off. Nor, according to Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy, Ukraine's security service chief, was any money paid to the bombers. He said that people could "sleep safely," but did not elaborate on how the threat had been neutralized.
The Kommersant-Ukraine daily reported that the bombers didn't turn up for the handover of the cash. Khoroshkovskiy's message was clear: panic over.
But many questions remain unresolved: How did the authorities prevent the threatened attacks? Did the other five bombs really exist? Why did the bombers ask for such a specific sum of money? And, most importantly: Who was behind the attacks?
At first, people drew a connection with Makiyivvuhillya, a state mining company based in Makiyivka, as one of the bombs exploded outside its offices. The company has recently been investigated by state auditors, who claim they were ejected after uncovering money-laundering schemes. The timing is curious, but no documents were destroyed in the explosion, so a motive is hard to discern. Local officials and the firm itself have dismissed a connection.
Another version of events was provided by the authoritative weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia. The newspaper suggested the incident was part of a dispute over management of the company, and the specific sum demanded was payback for a bribe paid to take charge of the firm. Makiyivvuhillya's current boss dismissed the claim.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now an opposition leader, hinted at a more sinister explanation for the strange incident, suggesting that the hand of the authorities could have been behind the explosions. "It's a well-developed ploy across the world for the clear problems of the current authorities to be covered up by strange explosions," she told Ukrainska Pravda news website in an interview.
Another (connected) popular theory saw the bombing as an opportunity for the authorities, planned or unplanned, to tighten the screws in the way that Russian leader Vladimir Putin did just over a decade ago in Russia when bombs went off in apartments building in Moscow, allegedly planted by Chechen terrorists.
Under the slogan of "stability" following a precipitous economic slump, Yanukukovych, as Putin did, has moved during his first year as president to increase his own power at the expense of parliament, sideline opponents by jailing them and overseen a decline in media freedoms. Yanukovych and his allies consistently refer to the "chaos" of the last five years in the same way as Putin did about the 1990s in Russia.
The 1999 bombing of a Moscow apartment block - which Putin blamed on Chechen terrorists, but some have suggested was orchestrated by the authorities - garnered Putin public support to launch an all-out war in Chechnya, boosting his own power and helping him continue his clampdown on opponents.
Earlier in January, in an irate appearance in parliament, Interior Minister Anatoliy Mohyliov warned that "bloodshed" was being planned for opposition protests in Kyiv on January 22. Protest leaders responded angrily that the authorities were planning provocations that would then be used to launch a clampdown on oppositionists.
Around a dozen allies of Tymoshenko, including the opposition leader herself, are already under investigation for alleged abuse of office and corruption. Three leaders of November protests against the new tax code have been detained for causing damage to public property while setting up a protest camp.
After the Makiyivka bombings, Yanukovych cut short a trip to Japan and called for law enforcement to be strengthened.
The protests on January 22 passed without incident. However, the fact that a scenario of provocations was being discussed among analysts reveals the level of fear that authorities are looking to expand the crackdown on opposition groups.
The official version is that this is the work of a group of criminals who wanted to hold the town to ransom. This seems a perfectly reasonable explanation: it could, for example, have been the work of disgruntled miners, who have ready access to explosives.
If this is the case, then it would be a very sobering (if, so far, isolated) judgment for the authorities - in a part of the country they count as their home and power base - of the economic, administrative and social system over which they preside.
As Dzerkalo Tyzhnia wrote, it's not hard to imagine such a perpetrator: "A miner driven to despair by the economic situation, a former soldier, a recently fired cop. Or perhaps a scammed businessman. Someone scammed by the state authorities, to whom the threatening note was addressed."
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