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Slaughter in Beslan

David Satter

MOSCOW – The horrifying outcome of the Beslan school siege in Southern Russia makes clear that President Putin’s determination to crush the Chechen resistance at all costs is a form of moral suicide that will destroy what is left of Russian democracy and could threaten the whole world. 

In the wake of the siege, there are 338 known dead and 260 missing. The final death toll may reach 600 making this the worst terrorist atrocity in post-Soviet Russian history and the most depraved, insofar as most of the victims are children.

Perhaps more shocking than the behavior of the terrorists, however, is the reaction of the Russian authorities who made no effort to save the hostages but concentrated exclusively on achieving their political goals.

The storm of the school began after an explosion in the school gymnasium. The explosion may have been an accident but a storm of the building was inevitable because no other alternative was ever contemplated. Putin did not respond to the terrorists’ demands or send anyone to negotiate. According to the freed hostages, the terrorists also could not call through to a single official in North Ossetia, where the school is located. The officials refused to come to the phone although the children of several of them were in the school.

Once the storm began, a pitched battle broke out in the gymnasium and terrorists blew themselves up, killing everyone around them. One of the reasons why counting the dead is so difficult is that, in many cases, there is nothing left of what were once the school’s children only pieces.

The events in Beslan, in many ways, were a repetition of the hostage taking in the theater on Dubrovka in November, 2002 in which 800 hostages were held for 57 hours. In that case, Russian officials also refused to negotiate although the hostage takers’ demands for a partial withdrawal from Chechnya were similar to positions supported by the majority of the population. Instead, the Federal Security Service (FSB) flooded the hall with gas causing the deaths of 129 hostages.

The Russian authorities have now demonstrated that, in a confrontation with terrorists, they are ready to sacrifice the lives of children. The terrorists, however, are adaptable and hostage taking is not the only method open to them.

In the theater siege, children under 12 were released and virtually all of the bombs were dummies, incapable of detonating. In the school siege, the terrorists deliberately targeted children and the bombs were real. It is not likely that those who carried out the two attacks in both cases, an important role was played by terrorist leader, Shamil Basaev, will now renounce attacking theaters, schools and hospitals. Instead of seizing them and taking hostages, however, they may simply blow them up.

Indiscriminate terror is a tactic against which Russian society, given its high level of corruption, has little defense. In 1995, Basaev was able to seize a hospital in Budyennovsk and take nearly 2,000 persons hostage because he paid off traffic policemen at 24 checkpoints not to inspect his trucks that were filled with 150 Chechen fighters.

Another equally serious threat to Russia is the danger of a wider war in the North Caucasus. Until recently, Igushetiya, the Moslem region bordering Chechnya, had remained relatively isolated from the war in Chechnya but in recent elections, Murat Zyazikov, a former FSB general, was elected governor in an election characterized by ballot box stuffing, bribery and intimidation at gunpoint.

The advent of Zyazikov led to a rise in support for the Chechens among the Ingush and Ingush were among the terrorists who seized the school in Beslan. The Ingush are the traditional enemies of the Ossetes, the principal residents of North Ossetia and when the hostages who escaped the school reported that many of the hostage takers were Ingush, the news was considered so dangerous that it was not carried by Russian television channels. Nonetheless, on the day of the storm, a group of Ossetes seized several dozen Ingush as hostages and tension is now running high throughout North Ossetia.

Ultimately, the danger of a campaign of indiscriminate terror and a new war in the North Caucasus derives from the refusal of Russia to consider any form of independence for Chechnya. This refusal, however, is not a matter of moral principle but derives only from Putin’s determination to assert his power and defend his political position. Chechnya, ever since it declared its independence in 1991, has been a pawn in the internal power struggle in Russia with its fate determined exclusively by the needs of the dominant faction in Moscow.

For three years, President Yeltsin refused all negotiations with Dzhokar Dudaev, the president of Chechnya who, in reality, was only seeking autonomy from Russia. Chechnya was nonetheless left untouched.

The situation changed in 1994. Yeltsin had forcibly dissolved the Russian parliament and lost popular support. This encouraged him to embark on what he assumed would be a short war capable of bolstering his popularity. Without a parliament capable of limiting his power, Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya to suppress Chechen independence. The result was nearly three years of fighting that cost the lives of approximately 6,000 Russian soldiers and 80,000 Chechen civilians. The war ended with the Khasavurt Accords that provided for the withdrawal of Russian troops and a final decision on independence in 2001.

In the period from 1996-1999, Chechnya was a de facto independent state but in 1999, Yeltsin’s popularity rating had fallen to 2 per cent and there was fear in the Kremlin that a new president would order criminal prosecution of his associates and family. To avoid this, the Yeltsin entourage had to guarantee the election of a reliable successor and there are signs that a decision was made to redirect popular anger over the pillaging of the country toward the Chechens.

In September, four apartment buildings were bombed in the middle of the night in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk killing 300 persons. Russian officials said that there was a “Chechen trail” in the bombings (there was never any proof of Chechen involvement) and the population was galvanized in support of a new invasion of Chechnya that it had previously opposed. Early success in the war turned Putin, at the time, the prime minister, into a national hero and he easily won election as Yeltsin’s successor. In his first official action, he signed a decree granting Yeltsin and his family immunity from criminal prosecution.

In the five years since the bombings, however, a great deal of evidence has emerged that suggests that they were carried out not by Chechens but by the FSB. In the first place, FSB agents were captured after placing a fifth bomb in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan. That bomb tested positive for hexogen, the explosive used in the other bombings. More recently, Mikhail Trepashkin, a former FSB agent who was investigating the explosions, spoke to the landlord who rented out the basement of the building on Guryanov Street in Moscow where the bomb that destroyed that building was placed. He said he had been pressured by the FSB to falsely identify a Chechen as the person who rented the basement. Trepashkin was able to identify the real renter as Vladimir Romanovich, an FSB officer responsible for infiltrating Chechen criminal groups who was killed several months after the bombings in a hit and run accident on Cyprus.

As president, Putin has pursued the Second Chechen War, which has already led to an estimated 50,000 additional civilian deaths, with unbending obstinacy, refusing all negotiations with the Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov. At the same time, Russian forces have launched a campaign of terror in Chechnya, arresting, torturing and murdering thousands of Chechen men on suspicion of ties with the guerrillas. It was this terror that helped to inspire female suicide bombers, known as “black widows” and the terrorists who embarked on what were likely to be suicide missions in the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the school siege in Beslan.

As the people of Beslan began burying their dead children, Russia has come to a moment of truth in its pursuit of total capitulation in Chechnya. Moderate elements in Chechnya do exist. In a statement posted on the Chechenpress web site, Maskhadov called for all Chechens “to mourn for the innocent victims of the Beslan school siege.” Putin, however, has made no move to try to involve Maskhadov or any other moderate Chechen separatist in negotiations over the future of Chechnya. Instead, he has indicated that he believes the Chechen problem can be solved with the help of tighter security and the use of force.

In his speech on the day after the storm of the school, Putin, paraphrasing a well known speech by Stalin, said, “we showed weakness and weak people are beaten.”

If the experience of recent years is any indication, the new security measures will include restrictions on freedom in Russia and renewed repression in Chechnya. Neither of these measures, however, is likely to work.

As a result, as democracy in Russia diminishes, the threat to the civilian population will steadily increase.

For years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has supported Russia’s leaders on the theory that they were pro-Western reformers while remaining blind to the moral vacuum in which they operated. This is one of the reasons for the comparative silence on the issue of Chechnya despite the irrefutable evidence of widespread and systematic Russian atrocities there.

In the wake of the events in Beslan, however, it is now clear where this silence has led. Putin cannot crush the national aspirations of the Chechens with violence and his attempt to do so will move Russia even further in the direction of the Soviet dictatorship that he finds so appealing. At the same time, the lure of money and support from Islamic terrorists who have long been active in Chechnya may become irresistible for young Chechens who, because they look European, may eventually be recruited for terrorist acts in the West.

Before the shock over the murder of the children of Beslan wears off, it is important for the U.S. to end its silence about Chechnya and bring maximum pressure on the Russian government to enter negotiations with those moderate Chechens who are ready for a political solution to the ten year conflict. The alternative is a cycle of unending, depraved violence that will end all hope of a decent future for Chechnya — and for Russia as well.

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