By the Numbers: What about Terrorism in Eastern Europe?

I recently wrote about the history of terrorism in Western Europe. Digging through the Global Terrorism Database shows that terrorism is rare and has been in decline in Western Europe for decades, despite recent well-publicized attacks.
deaths and attacks per decade, 1970-2014

But what about Eastern Europe, the former Communist states? Obviously, there are many reasons why you have to look at Eastern Europe separately — the whole Cold War, Communism, Iron Curtain thing — but the differences are striking. (Note that 2014 is literally off the chart.)

east vs west 1

east vs west totals

A few facts jump out:

  • Terrorism was practically nonexistent in Eastern Europe prior to 1989, according to the records in the GTD.
  • Terrorism became much more common during the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Deaths from terrorism exploded in 2014, more than doubling the next highest year. In fact, nearly a quarter of all terrorism fatalities in Eastern Europe in the last 44 years happened in 2014.

Why was there so little (non-state) terrorism under Communism? Either it’s very hard to commit terrorism in totalitarian societies, or public reports were suppressed, making it hard for researchers to compile attacks. Probably it’s some of both. But my guess is that terrorism is the price we pay for an open society. The motives for terrorism vary, but it’s surely easier to carry out attacks in a freer society, and democracy might be perceived as more responsive than autocracy.

So what happened in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, and what happened in 2014?

Digging into the data a little more shows that basically all non-state terrorism in Eastern Europe is related to three conflicts:

  • The breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s;
  • The separatist insurgency in Chechnya, beginning the mid-1990s and sporadically since;
  • Russian-sponsored separatism in eastern Ukraine.

deaths by cause

Yugoslavia accounts for nearly 10 percent of terrorism deaths in Eastern Europe, Ukrainian separatism for 22 percent, and Chechnya for 47 percent. Just 2 percent of terrorism deaths in Eastern Europe happened outside Russia/USSR, Ukraine, or Yugoslavia (and their former constituent nations).

A few notes:

  1. While no fewer than 70 percent of terrorism deaths in Russia are definitively linked to the Chechen conflict by known motives or known perpetrators, it is likely that many other killings carried out by unknown assailants are also the result of Chechen terrorism.
  2. Although the separatist war in Ukraine is almost entirely a front for Russian military intervention, the new Ukrainian government has declared the conflict to be “counter-terrorism operations.” Thus, even though the separatists are state-sponsored and waging a conventional guerrilla war, with support from Russian troops and artillery, many of the attacks and deaths associated with the conflict are counted as “terrorism.” For instance, in July 2014, separatists mistakenly shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 using a Russian-made missile system, killing all 298 people on board, and this is included in the GTD’s death total for 2014.

This highlights the main trouble of distinguishing terrorism from war, or civil war, or war crimes, in the context of an open military conflict — especially if one side is relying on guerilla tactics or asymmetric warfare. Targeting or accidentally killing civilians is common in inter-state and civil wars, while military and governmental targets are also common for terrorists.

Classification is always arbitrary to some extent, but it’s interesting to note that all three of the main drivers of terrorism in Eastern Europe have been directly related to larger wars, which is substantially different from the sorts of terrorism (even separatist terrorism) that have tended to happen in Western Europe.