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Russia after Beslan

ISSUE:  Winter 2005


American coverage of the monstrous hostage-taking at Beslan’s School No. 1 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia and the ensuing controversy over President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in ostensible response to the terrorist threat was hampered by many factors, not the least of which has been our election-season anxiety about the health of our own democracy. The superficial correspondences are everywhere: between what many consider to be Putin’s reckless and unwinnable war of choice in Chechnya and President Bush’s reckless war of choice and thus-far-unwinnable peace in Iraq; between Putin’s claims that his war is a vital part of the fight against international terrorism, while it has in fact spurred radical Islamism and been the occasion for a wave of horrific terrorist acts, and Bush’s identical claims about the war in Iraq, while jihadists from throughout the Arab world pour over Iraqi borders and the death toll mounts more steeply every month; between Putin’s use of undemocratic and arguably anticonstitutional measures in the name of making Russia safer and the Bush administration’s use of the same while obvious and easily implemented antiterrorist measures have yet to be taken; the list goes on.

But attention to the superficial correspondences in the absence of a clear understanding of Russia’s political structure and recent history only further obscures the already complex constellation of issues surrounding the attack. Interpreting antidemocratic moves on Putin’s part as deviations from the standards of American liberal democracy is misguided, if not meaningless. The Yeltsin era brought certain aspects of Russian society closer to the American experience than they ever had been. But it was also radically destabilizing, after seven decades of Communist dictatorship, and left many Russians yearning for precisely the stability that Putin represents—so successfully that his popularity remains high after four years of terrorist attacks that have left nearly 1,000 dead.

Unfortunately, the hurricane of opinion-mongering in the op-ed pages of major American newspapers and the live feeds from cable news shows cut off a careful consideration of some very basic questions—What precisely happened in Beslan? How is it related to Chechnya? By what standards do we judge Putin’s response?—almost before it could begin. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Carter, authored an editorial comparing Putin to Mussolini. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal quoted Lenin on the true nature of dictatorship as though it were quoting Putin. Cautiously critical remarks from Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush in the weeks following the attack (“I’ve got a good relation with Vladimir. . . . Vladimir’s going to have to make some hard choices,” Bush said in the first presidential debate) led to intimations of “the new cold war.” The initial volley of anti-Kremlin editorials led to a return volley attacking them for their naivete and stridency—frequently in terms just as naive and tones just as strident. Add to this the traditional limitations of American coverage of Russia in the post-Soviet era—lack of clear, sharp story focus, lack of column inches, lack of public interest—and the nonspecialist observer in America has been left with few places to turn.

During the rancorous first presidential debate in late September, there was one point of absolute accord between George W. Bush and John Kerry: the gravest threat that faces the United States today is the threat of nuclear terrorism. The terrorists who seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002—an attack organized by the same man who has claimed responsibility for the attack in Beslan—“reportedly considered seizing [Russia’s] Kurchatov Institute instead—a site with enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for dozens of nuclear weapons.”1 Significantly, only hours after terrorists seized School No. 1 in Beslan, the Russian Atomic Energy Agency announced that additional troops were being deployed to every nuclear site in the country. This in spite of previous assurances that such sites were secure beyond question or concern.

America’s strategic partnership with Russia is in many ways more important than it ever has been before. The nature of that partnership in coming years will depend in no small part on how clearly Americans are able to understand the stakes of the Beslan crisis, its context, and its aftermath. By drawing on Russian news and opinion sources that have found too little audience in America, as well as on Western sources, this essay hopes to clarify all three.

Everything I Hear Comes from a Distance

One of the first casualties in the recent crossfire of opinion has been a clear picture of the circumstances of the attack itself. What happened in Beslan that Wednesday, September 1, the so-called “Day of Knowledge,” when children arrived at school bearing flowers to celebrate the beginning of a new school year—flowers they would later eat petal by petal in a hopeless attempt to stave off hunger?

As parents and children gathered in the school’s courtyard at 9:30 that morning, hijacked military personnel carriers roared in. At least 32 masked terrorists leapt out and quickly overwhelmed the few police officers who happened to be present before forcing over 1,000 people, adults and children, into the school. In a nearby market, a mother of two children—one of whom escaped during the initial gun battle with police, the other of whom was taken hostage—discussed the gunshots with fellow merchants as she prepared her stall for the day’s sales. “It would be okay to shoot on New Year’s Eve,” she told a neighbor, “but not on the First of September. You can’t just start shooting with kids everywhere.”2

The terrorists forced most of the hostages into the school’s gymnasium. They shot out the upper windows of the gymnasium to avoid the possibility of a knockout gas attack, which Russian special forces used in an attempt to resolve the hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002. The terrorists then placed several dozen small homemade bombs, connected by detonation wires, throughout the room; smaller bombs were placed on the floor or taped to the walls while larger bombs were hung in the basketball hoops at either end of the gym.

Who were they? According to hostage accounts, as well as the claims of Shamil Basaev, the Chechen field commander who has since claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking, as he has for other major terrorist attacks, the group included twelve Chechen men and two Chechen women, eight Ingush, two Ossetians, two Arabs, two Russians, a Kabarda, a Tartar, and a Guran. From early on, official reports would exaggerate the international element, claiming ten Arabs and “a black African.” The Russian investigation claimed there were 32 in all, while Basaev said there were 33.3

Over the course of the first day, the terrorists issued several demands, the first of which was the release of rebel fighters imprisoned in Ingushetia. One hostage, Hazbek Zarasov, later told BBC Radio, “I heard them talking on the phone. They wanted four of their people to be released from prison and brought right into the sports hall. They told us they would release us after that. I don’t know. It looked like they wanted to settle things peacefully and let us go.”4

A far less practicable demand was soon to follow: an end to the war in Chechnya and the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. Aslan Kudzaev, an Ossetian man who was taken hostage in the school but managed to escape on the first day, related a conversation he had with the terrorist leader: “I told him to let the children put their hands down. Four hours is a long time to hold your hands up, and they were tired. You know what he answered? Four hours is nothing. The Chechens have stood before Russia with their hands up for 12 years already.”5

Meanwhile, a crisis response team consisting of Russian police, army troops, spetsnaz special forces, and the Interior Ministry’s OMON unit surrounded the building and established a cordon to keep the terrified family members and townspeople who had gathered—many of them armed—100 meters from the school. Some 50 children who had hidden in the boiler room and other locations when shooting broke out that morning fled to safety. By the end of the day, the situation inside the school was already grim. Terrorists had taken 20 men from the gymnasium and shot them dead. “In the corner, under a portrait of Mayakovsky and the slogan ‘I would learn Russian just because Lenin spoke it,’ there was a mound of corpses,” one hostage recalled.6 They also threatened to shoot crying children. “If they storm us, you die,” one said. “We’ll blow up everyone including ourselves. We don’t care.”7

On Thursday morning, Dr. Leonid Roshal began negotiations with the terrorists. Roshal, who had come at the terrorists’ demand, had served as negotiator during the Dubrovka Theater crisis, securing the release of children before special forces stormed the theater. This time he was not so fortunate. Terrorists refused his request to deliver food, water, and medical supplies to the hostages and even forbade the removal of the bodies of the men they had shot the previous day. Later that day, however, former president of Ingushetia Ruslan Aushev talked with the terrorists and managed to negotiate the release of 26 people, including the youngest children and their mothers. One mother faced the wrenching dilemma of being allowed to carry her five-month-old son to safety while her other son, a seven-year-old, had to stay. She pled with the terrorists to be allowed to hand over the infant to relatives then come back to stay with the older boy. “Don’t worry, nothing will happen to those left behind,” she recalls one of them telling her. “Don’t be afraid, nothing will happen. Come on, go. Babies only. Thank Allah that you’re being released.”8

She never saw her older son alive again.

The release of the first hostages brought to an end the official lie that had been one of the few pieces of information about the crisis circulated in the Russian state media over the past 36 hours: that only 354 people had been taken hostage. “Already on September 1,” said Boris Leonov, a Russian cameraman who was present at the scene, “the people were saying there were 1,200 hostages, but the authorities announced 354. Foreign journalists wondered: what kind of a number is that, 354? Why not 600 or 700? . . . This immediately made the local people hostile toward us, as if someone was doing this on purpose, fomenting people’s anger.”9

The number was first given by the North Ossetian president’s press secretary and the local chief of the FSB (the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) and was repeated constantly on state-run television and radio. If Russian reporters had doubts about the number, there was little opportunity to verify its source: the press service representatives of the Interior Ministry, General Prosecutor’s Office, and FSB sent to coordinate between the press and the staff of the rescue operation were nowhere to be found. “It seems as if there are no representatives of the law enforcement agencies here at all,” a reporter for the newspaper Gazeta wrote. To the local residents massed outside, the figure was absurd. Parents had already begun to assemble their own list of hostages when those released with Aushev’s help provided confirmation that the actual number was three times the official one. Hostility toward the press grew among residents, who blamed reporters for the deception.

Of far graver immediate consequence was the reaction of the terrorists to the official lie. The temperature in the gymnasium had skyrocketed. The hostages, packed shoulder to shoulder, were at first allowed a bucket of water; several adults stripped their shirts off, soaked them, and passed them around for children to drink what they could wring from the cloth. Then the terrorists, who had television access at the school, saw the false figure and grew so enraged that they refused the hostages water.10 Children resorted to drinking their own urine.

On the third day of the crisis, with hostages hallucinating and losing consciousness after nearly three days without food or water, the terrorists made a minor concession, agreeing with negotiators to allow removal of the bodies of the men they had killed two days beforehand. It would be the last sign of hope.

The question of whether or not Russian troops had planned to storm the school remains an open one. The official Kremlin line is that they hadn’t. On September 2, officials had publicly ruled out the use of force, and Putin had emphasized that the highest priority was the safety of the hostages. While the battle raged on September 3, news briefs aired on state television and radio at the top of every hour repeated that there had been no plan to storm the school.

Several Russian sources, however, concluded that there had indeed been a plan to storm the school. Nezavisimaia Gazeta cited as evidence the arrival of specially equipped military transport planes in North Ossetia on the first day of the crisis, as well as the presence of troops from Alfa, an elite antiterror unit. The online news site concurred: “The storming had in fact been prepared and was to have been carried out within the next two days. Without water, the children could only have survived for three or four days, and then it would have no longer been possible to rescue most of the hostages. However, on Friday they were forced to take action.”11

Regardless of the end that Russian special forces or the terrorists may have had in mind, the cascade of violence on the afternoon of the 3rd began with a sickening accident. As medical workers approached the building shortly after 1 p.m. to remove the bodies, one of the larger bombs fell from a basketball hoop and detonated upon landing. The blast blew out the windows, and the nearest hostages began to flee through them. Terrorists shot them in the back as they ran. Russian forces opened fire as hundreds of local residents broke through the cordon, some shooting, some running into the gymnasium to rescue whomever they could. Another explosion brought the gymnasium roof crashing down on the heads of those still inside. The battle raged for hours while local residents raced to and from the scene in their own cars and trucks, ferrying the wounded to hospitals. Not a single ambulance had been waiting at the scene when fighting broke out. It was nearly two hours before an adequate number of them arrived. Some have interpreted this as a sign that officials expected a peaceful solution; others have attributed it to a near-criminal lack of planning.

The school continued to burn hours after the terrorists had been killed—only one was captured alive—and the wounded had been transported to hospitals as far away as Moscow. A reporter for the Russian newspaper Kommersant spoke to a fireman who was fighting the blaze. He had stormed the school with the special forces earlier that day and related the sort of nightmarish scenes that every witness to the tragedy now carried: “At first we had to identify the ones who were still alive. I was mistaken twice. . . . Two girls were yelling to us from the window, waving their handkerchiefs at us. One was a little older, the other about seven years old. Above them the terrorists were shooting the Alfa soldiers. I waved at the girls letting them know I’d come and get them. . . . And then there was an explosion, so I never saw them again.”

“Is this really me speaking?” he asked, overcome. “It’s strange. It seems like the words are mine and it was I who saw it all, but somehow now everything I hear comes from a distance. Is that okay?”12

Why Did You Lie?

It wasn’t only the fireman who heard things from a distance. Throughout the siege of School No. 1, a desperate Russian public tried to gather what information they could from brief official reports presented by a media that was itself hampered, harassed, and deceived.

From the moment fighting broke out on September 3, CNN, the BBC, and the Euronews television networks ran live footage from the school. The state-run Russian channels Rossiia and Channel One, however, delayed their coverage until 2 p.m., at which point Channel One broadcast live for ten minutes before switching to its regularly scheduled program, a Brazilian soap opera entitled “Women in Love.” Rossiia maintained its broadcast from the school for an hour. Particularly telling was the reaction of the nominally independent station NTV (owned by the state-controlled gas company Gazprom), which had earned Putin’s wrath in 2002 for its live coverage of the hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. NTV was broadcasting live from School No. 1 at 1 p.m. when the explosions sounded that marked the beginning of the chaos. In a clear show of panic, the network cut away from its live coverage, without mention or explanation of the explosions, to the sports report.

The extent to which the Russian national television media has been cowed and the print media put on an ever-shorter leash was on full display in Beslan. As Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations told the Moscow Times, “The only chance for Russians to understand what was going on was [the independent radio station] Ekho Moskvy or the Internet. Our media were unable to fulfill their job.”13

The last statement is true, however, only if one considers the job of the media to be objectively informing the public of all the newsworthy information in its possession. Putin’s administration clearly has another idea.

In the wake of the sharply criticized handling of the Dubrovka Theater crisis, which left 129 civilians dead, Putin lashed out publicly not at Russian special forces, whose use of a lethal knockout gas was responsible for virtually every civilian casualty, but at NTV, claiming that its coverage had jeopardized the hostages. The network’s general director was fired several months later in a move widely understood to be punishment for the coverage.

Soon thereafter Russia’s state-owned media organizations adopted an ostensibly voluntary “antiterrorist convention” that restricted the coverage of terrorist events. In August 1994, the Duma’s Television Committee proposed further self-censorship measures that forbade the use of certain words and phrases on the air, including “bank crisis,” “elimination of state benefits,” “killer,” “shakhid” (suicide martyr), and, incredibly, “war in Chechnya.” Shortly after the beginning of the Beslan siege, a memorandum was circulated to the press and television media by the managers of 24 major media organizations reminding reporters of the forbidden terms. It added the phrase “special operation” to the list.14

National television has been a particular target of Putin’s from early in his first administration. The overwhelming majority of Russians receive their news from television rather than print media, radio, or the Internet, especially outside of the major metropolitan centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The state-owned Rossiia and Channel One have a broadcast reach that covers 93 percent of Russian households, an astonishing figure in a country that spans eleven time zones.

Control over television in Russia means control over popular opinion. This was particularly evident during the Yeltsin era, when coverage critical of the president, and especially his conduct of the war in Chechnya, nearly led to his political demise. As Mathew Evangelista writes: “The first war ended largely because ordinary Russians judged the cost too great—in lives and money—and they put pressure on the government, particularly vulnerable during the 1996 elections, to make peace. Russian media played a key role during the first war in reporting the hopelessness of the situation on the ground” (195). Oleg Panfilov, director of the Russian Union of Journalists’ Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, makes the same point more sharply: “I think that the first Chechen war was won not by the Chechens, but by the journalists.”15

Yeltsin was forced to turn to the oligarchs for help in his 1996 reelection bid. Thus was born the infamous “loans-for-shares” program. In exchange for loans to finance his campaign and positive coverage in the oligarchs’ various media outlets, Yeltsin allowed them controlling stakes in formerly state-owned industries such as Yukos, Sibneft, and Norilsk Nickel. Yeltsin narrowly won reelection. Soon thereafter NTV and TV-6 turned critical again.

Putin would never leave himself so vulnerable. Particularly when it came to the second Chechen war, as Panfilov puts it, Putin “understood that [he] must restrict the work of journalists.”16 And he knew precisely how to do it.

The same chaotic and often semilegal means that allowed the oligarchs to construct their media empires left them vulnerable to selective prosecution. Over the course of Putin’s first administration they fell like dominoes. In April of 2001 armed guards stormed the offices of Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV, completing its takeover by the state gas monopoly Gazprom and guaranteeing an end to its anti-Kremlin editorial policy. When NTV’s leading journalists moved to Boris Berezovsky’s TV-6, it was pulled off the air with the help of a rarely invoked law that claimed a lack of profits as grounds for the network’s liquidation. In June of 2003 the Russian Press Ministry took down TVS, the only remaining nonstate network “and the only one that dared be critical of the Kremlin’s actions, especially in Chechnya,” citing a supposed “financial, personnel and management crisis” at the station. It was replaced with an all-day sports channel.17

The Russian print media is sometimes cited as evidence that freedom of opinion is alive and well in Russia, no matter how grim the situation of television journalism may be. Indeed, numerous Russian newspapers have published reports criticizing the official response to Beslan, including the systematic restriction of information during the siege. On the other hand, a number of disturbing incidents affecting print and radio journalists over the course of the crisis have raised concerns that all independent news media in Russia may soon go the way of television.

Anna Politkovskaya, a writer for the biweekly Novaya Gazeta widely known as a fierce critic of the Kremlin and an uncompromising chronicler of the Chechen wars, is no stranger to official harassment. One of the more troubling instances occurred in February 2001, when she traveled to Chechnya to verify reports of mass detentions, torture, and summary executions of Chechens by Russian soldiers. After she succeeded in obtaining the evidence she sought, she was arrested by the FSB and threatened with rape and execution. In October 2001 death threats forced her to flee the country. She has since returned and continues to write about Russian human rights violations in Chechnya when few others can or will.18

In the case of Beslan, however, she failed even to make it to the site of the crisis. She, along with other journalists at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, was unable to board flights from the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz and neighboring towns. While she waited for a flight to become available, she made numerous cellular phone calls to discuss a topic even she acknowledges to be reckless: how the former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, considered a terrorist by the Kremlin, might be brought in to negotiate with the terrorists. “It’s something we’ve long since known not to talk about by cell phone,” Politkovskaya later told the BBC’s Russian Service. “But we weren’t ashamed. My position was this: We need to make every effort so that Maskhadov can persuade these people to release the children, so that he comes out from underground.”19

She was eventually approached by a man who presented himself as an airport official and told that she would be allowed on a flight to Rostov-on-Don because of her status as a respected journalist. She was put on a minibus with three other people she suspects were FSB agents. “According to the driver,” she told the BBC, “an FSB agent came up to him and said: ‘You should seat these men on the plane.’ They sat in business class. I sat in economy. The kitchen was located on the business class side.” Politkovskaya was brought a cup of tea on the flight, and promptly after drinking it she lost consciousness. She was evacuated from the plane, badly poisoned.

A Georgian television journalist who made it to Beslan apparently fell victim to similar tactics. She was arrested by the FSB in Beslan and offered a cup of coffee during interrogation. “She was told they added some cognac to the coffee and she lost her senses,” a colleague said. “She doesn’t remember anything, and only came to a day later, in hospital.” Tests confirmed that she was poisoned.20

Another well-publicized incident involved the crusading Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky. He, like Politkovskaya, is one of the few journalists who have reported extensively on war crimes and atrocities by Russian soldiers during the second war in Chechnya. In January of 2001 he was arrested for reporting from Chechnya without official accreditation. He was held for several weeks and beaten repeatedly before being traded to Chechen rebels for captured Russian soldiers—a move suspected by some to have been staged to justify Putin’s claims that Babitsky was “working directly for the enemy.”21

Attempting to travel to Beslan on September 2, Babitsky was detained at Vnukovo Airport when a bomb-sniffing dog reacted to his luggage. After his bags were searched and nothing suspicious was found, he was released. He was then approached by two young men who asked him to buy them beer. Immediately police appeared and took all three into custody, Babitsky supposedly as the victim of an assault, though he repeatedly claimed that he hadn’t been attacked or injured. He was forced to undergo a medical examination nevertheless. The next day a justice of the peace convicted him of hooliganism and sentenced him to 15 days in jail. Two days later the sentence was commuted to a 1,000-ruble fine.

Needless to say, he didn’t make it to Beslan.

Part of the Kremlin’s preoccupation with television clearly stems from the terrific immediacy and eloquence of images, their ability to spur public opposition at times when facts in cold print cannot. Raf Shakirov, editor of the Russian news daily Izvestia, understood this power well, and he paid a high price for using it. On September 4, after the paper had already been the first Russian source to cast doubt on the official figure of 354 hostages, Izvestia published a special edition devoted to the crisis. Its front and back covers bore dramatic, full-page photos of young hostages, half-naked and smirched with blood and grime, being carried from the wreckage of the school. Similarly dramatic images appeared inside. According to a source at Izvestia, the paper’s owners received an enraged call from the Kremlin demanding that Shakirov be fired. “The newspaper’s coverage is the reason,” the source told the Moscow Times, “especially the Saturday issue.”22

Tellingly, it has been little short of impossible to find a replacement for Shakirov. Izvestia is a prestigious publication, considered by many to be Russia’s paper of record. For such a paper to function for over a month without a permanent editor in chief would under most circumstances be shocking. But given Russia’s current political climate, it was all but assured. According to Pavel Gutionov of the Russian Union of Journalists, “It’s extremely difficult to find a person who suits the authorities 100% and is authoritative enough to run a newspaper.” A Duma Information Policy Committee official added that, “Of course, it’s possible to appoint a very obedient person in a circle that’s very close to the ‘emperor,’ but this would make it quite a different paper.”23

Since then, two more high-profile Izvestia resignations have been announced, including that of managing editor Georgy Bovt, who was thought by some to be the most likely candidate to replace Shakirov. “I wasn’t offered editor-in-chief,” Bovt said, “but I would have refused. In the current conditions, no.”

If there remained any suspicion that these were isolated instances, First Deputy Culture and Mass Media Minister Leonid Nadirov dispelled it when he announced in early October that 18 official warnings had been issued to Russian media organizations in the past three months, adding ominously that “we can raise the issue of recalling their licenses after a second similar warning is issued.”24 The Russian news site reported in late September that the Duma’s Committee of Informational Politics was considering legislation forbidding television and radio stations from broadcasting any information about hostage situations until the entire crisis is over.

One suspects that such legislation would only formalize a state of affairs that already exists. Thanks to the Kremlin’s de facto control of every national television network, Russians saw largely what Putin wanted them to see of Beslan, which was virtually nothing. The fullest coverage of the Beslan crisis available in Russia came from the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which broadcast on-the-spot translations of CNN television coverage.

What seems strange from an American perspective is that Russians were entirely aware that they were being lied to—or at the very least told half the story. Ninety-two percent of respondents in an Ekho Moskvy listener poll believed that television reports had concealed information about Beslan. A poll by the independent Levada Center brought similar results. Only 13 percent believed the coverage was complete and honest. Eighteen percent believed “they were being constantly deceived or something very important was being concealed from them.”25 Nevertheless, a large majority of Russians support censorship in some form. Some commentators claim this justifies press restrictions in Russia, though in the process they conveniently overlook the fact that Article 29 of the Russian Constitution expressly forbids censorship. What’s more, in a poll of more than 3,000 Ekho Moskvy listeners after Beslan, 85 percent agreed that a free press can help combat terrorism.

Putin’s call in the wake of Beslan for the Russian press to do its part to combat terror highlights a dilemma that faces Russia and America alike: what role ought the media to play in the context of the “global war on terror”? To some, an ever-present terrorist threat means that a clear picture of terrorism’s sources and effects, as well as the state’s response, is more important than ever. Raf Shakirov demonstrated this conception in his explanation of why he printed the photographs in the September 4 Izvestia: “We did it, of course, not as some sort of experiment, but proceeding from our understanding of what this [attack] meant for the country. And, in general, our understanding was then confirmed, that this is war.”26

But there exists another conception, shared by the Putin and Bush administrations, in which freedom of information is considered nearly as dangerous as terrorism itself. President Bush has characterized voices critical of his administration’s conduct of the war on terror and the war in Iraq—be they those of the press or his political opponents—as “emboldening terrorists” and “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” And when Putin calls on the Russian press to be a tool against terror, his history of restrictions and reprisals against journalists who haven’t toed the Kremlin line makes it clear what sort of tool he means.

Still, with terrorist groups in Iraq using nightmarish video footage of the beheading of hostages as an instrument of recruitment and intimidation, with the image of the Beslan terrorists shooting children in the back burned in to our collective memory, certain uncomfortable questions must be addressed. If terrorists seek the widest possible audience, why ought the press to give it to them? Doesn’t there exist a real danger, as one Russian State Duma deputy put it, that “journalists serve as terrorists’ press agents”? When Beslan residents attacked Russian and foreign journalists in the days following the school siege, crying, “Why did you lie?” can’t the Putin administration, or any other, answer: “For your own good”?

The inconvenient fact in the case of Beslan is that it was for no one’s good. Shakirov put the point plainly: “Wasn’t it more harmful to ignore information or give wrong information? When they give wrong figures and said terrorists gave no demands, wasn’t it a threat to the hostage’s lives? No doubt it was.”27 Moscow Times columnist Yulia Latynina makes the further point that media restrictions may have actually hampered the possibility of a peaceful settlement. “The terrorists’ demands were on President Vladimir Putin’s desk inside of 10 minutes. Yet the state media reported that the terrorists had made no demands. The terrorists perceived this as a death sentence. If their demands weren’t even being reported, negotiations were not in the cards.”28

The most startling realization of all is that the lives of the hostages in any given crisis are only the beginning of what’s at stake in Putin’s effort to stifle voices of opposition. What’s truly at stake is the stability of the entire Northern Caucasus—and by extension, all of Russia. This conclusion becomes inescapable when one considers the topic Putin furiously insisted had no connection with Beslan: the war in Chechnya.

I Do Not Have a Second of Doubt

In a penetrating analysis of the hazards of the Russian war in Chechnya, an author by the name of Ivan Golovin wrote:

The war in the Caucasus is under prevalent conditions a truly fruitless war, and the stubbornness with which the Russian government insists on its continuation will have nothing but useless bloodshed and increased hate as its consequence, and make every lasting rapprochement impossible. Russia should, first of all, declare war on its own officials who are its greatest enemies, and who, after calling forth the quarrel themselves, make it in its continuance pernicious, by robbing and stealing without mercy. They sacrifice the interest of the country to their own interests and sell enemies even weapons. . . . They conceal the number of the killed ones. . . .29

The passage appeared in a study of Tsar Nicholas I that Golovin was writing in 1845.

Russian attempts to subdue Chechnya began almost three decades earlier under the Russian general Yermolov, whose campaign was so brutal, especially toward Chechen civilians, that it fell under enough criticism from the Russian nobility to compel Yermolov’s replacement. A second, more disciplined campaign was no more successful. Chechen resistance gathered under Muslim moutaineer warlords, including the legendary Imam Shamil, a central figure in Tolstoy’s late masterpiece Hadji Hurad. On the Russian side, the war was characterized by “the amazing impotence of Russian intelligence and the military to capture the resistance leaders or to predict their next targets.”30

Shamil, believing the war to be transparently unjust, expected the intervention of other nations on Chechnya’s behalf. It was a futile hope. By the 1850s, the Ottoman Empire was too weak to take part in the war, and France and England, facing rebellions in their own colonies in North and South Africa, had no interest in joining in a colonial uprising. Though Russian forces never managed to capture the rebel leader, the decades-long war took a disastrous toll on the Northern Caucasus. There were as many as 100,000 Russian casualties, and the Chechen casualties, rebel and civilian, were far greater. An aging Shamil finally surrendered in 1859. This was far from the end of the resistance, though. New Chechen rebellions against Russian (and later Soviet) rule began in 1862, 1877, 1905, 1917, 1929, and 1940.

During the Second World War, one of Joseph Stalin’s most outrageous crimes had direct consequences for both modern Chechen wars and the crisis in Beslan. Taking a cue from his tsarist predecessors, who had three times ordered mass deportations of Chechen families from the territory, Stalin summarily arrested entire ethnic groups, including the Chechens and the Ingush, and declared them guilty of “mass treason” for supposed collaboration with the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were forced into cattle trucks and deported to Kazakhstan.

As Robert Service notes, “Armed groups of Chechens and others had indeed rendered active assistance to the Wehrmacht. But this was not the whole story.” Seventeen thousand Chechens had served with distinction in the Red Army. What’s more, “thirty-six Chechens had been decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union for their conspicuous valour as Red Army Soldiers. . . . And vastly more Ukrainians than Volga Germans or Chechens had started by warmly greeting the German invasion. Nevertheless the Ukrainian nation was not subsequently deported.”31

More than a quarter died during the first five years of exile. After Stalin’s death, those still among the living were gradually allowed to return. The Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic that had been abolished and divided among the neighboring Dagestani and North Ossetian Republics was reestablished. Chechens were left with a permanent sense of grievance and a new sense of national unity. Ingush were left without a border district that had been theirs before the deportation and now belonged to North Ossetia—a situation that rebels seeking to destabilize the region have exploited numerous times in recent years in an attempt to ignite a war that would engulf the entire North Caucasus.

In the more than two decades following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian leadership has repeatedly been faced with the question of whether to attempt to negotiate a peaceful solution to Chechen strivings toward independence—as it did, for instance, in the former Soviet republic of Tartarstan—and has consistently chosen military confrontation instead. By marginalizing potential negotiating partners and characterizing all Chechens as bandits and terrorists, Moscow has in fact hastened the spread of everything it claimed to be combating: radical nationalist sentiment within the republic, the influence of rebel leaders such as Shamil Basaev, the participation of radical Islamists from abroad in a struggle toward a greater Muslim state, and the very terrorist tactics that have taken such a toll on Russian civilians over the past four years.

During the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chechnya came under the control of former-Soviet-general-turned-Chechen-nationalist Dzhokhar Dudaev, who declared it independent of Ingushetia upon his election as president. The situation in the republic grew increasingly volatile in 1992, when Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev ceded Dudaev half the arms of the former Soviet forces now retreating from the area. As there was no official Chechen army, many of the weapons fell into the hands of criminal gangs. Kidnappings and hijackings became common both inside Chechnya and beyond its borders.

Recognizing the complexity of the problem and the danger of war, Grachev insisted on the need for open talks between Chechnya and Russia. “Bayonets and machine guns are not going to fix the economy or the political situation,” Grachev said at the time. “I’m saying this—a person who has spent his whole life with weapons. It’s surprising that people who consider themselves professional politicians don’t understand this.”32

Yeltsin refused to meet with Dudaev personally and acted to undermine talks that might have allowed a peaceful solution to Chechnya’s desire for autonomy. In spite of numerous provocative statements, the Chechen president seemed to prefer the prospect of a negotiated solution to a war for independence. In late 1993 he sent Yeltsin a personal telegram that read in part: “We do not see strategically a place for the Chechen Republic outside the single economic, political and legal space which covers the current Commonwealth of Independent States.”

Relations between Dudaev and the Kremlin collapsed in late November 1994, when internal opponents of Dudaev attempted a coup with the aid of members of the Russian military. When the coup failed and Dudaev demanded an admission of Russian involvement, Yeltsin called a Security Council session to determine the Russian response. According to the memoirs of Yeltsin advisors, discussion of alternatives to invasion was forbidden until after a resolution to use force was adopted. For his part, Dudaev claimed still to be seeking negotiation. “As late as the 29th or 30th,” he later said, “if they had only spoken to me like a human being, everything could have been completely different. But all I heard was ‘bandit, criminal, dictator, thief, leader of a criminal regime!’”33

Russian predictions of a quick success—one that would “boost Yeltsin’s sagging popularity,” incidentally—were as misplaced as they had been nearly two centuries earlier. Defense Minister Grachev predicted success in twelve days or less. Members of the military were far less confident. The colonel-general initially ordered to lead the invasion submitted his resignation rather than be at the head of what he considered a disastrously poorly planned expedition. Certain of the defects he named sound chillingly familiar: “I began to think through the errors: our underestimation of the Chechen passion; the lack of military surprise; the dependency on air power in bad weather; the dependency on a phony opposition movement; the utter lack of preparation.”34 Hundreds of other Russian military officers were fired, resigned, or were disciplined for their opposition to the invasion, particularly when it involved violence against unarmed civilians.

An aerial bombing campaign in Grozny killed dozens of civilians at the very moment Yeltsin was assuring the Russian people in a television address that no such strikes would be allowed. Chechen troops fled into the mountains, beginning a guerilla war that the Russians were ill-equipped to conduct. They responded with a brutal campaign of indiscriminate bombings, mass arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions widely documented by Russian and international media and human rights organizations. War crimes were also documented on the part of Chechen fighters, but the brunt of the blame fell squarely on Russia.

With international and internal criticism mounting, a number of factors turned the tide of the war in the Chechens’ favor. The first was a June 1995 attack on a hospital in the Russian town of Budennovsk by Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev—the same Basaev who would later mastermind the Dubrovka Theater and Beslan attacks—in which 1,500 hostages were taken. After a failed Russian raid led to the deaths of 166 civilians, then–Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated the release of the hostages in exchange for the safe passage of Basaev and his forces back to Chechnya, a cease-fire in the war, and the opening of peace talks.

Another pair of hostage-takings in early 1996 led to similar humiliations for Russian special forces, the deaths of dozens of hostages, and the escape of the Chechen rebels. The irony, as Mathew Evangelista indicates, is that “Chechen resistance forces turned the tide of the war and ultimately put an end to the Russian occupation by becoming what Moscow had always branded them: terrorists.”35

It was a lesson Basaev would not forget.

An additional factor in the end of the war was the upcoming presidential election in June of 1996. With the war already thoroughly unpopular among a majority of Russians and an antiwar candidate providing a serious threat, Yeltsin signed a cease-fire and promised the withdrawal of troops—starting with those from key electoral districts. After he had secured reelection he briefly resumed the war, with disastrous consequences. Chechen troops under then–Armed Forces Commander Aslan Maskhadov seized Grozny. The Russians responded with a bombing campaign that killed an estimated 2,000 civilians and turned an additional 220,000 into refugees.36 In August 1996, Yeltsin finally ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops.

During Chechnya’s three years of nominal independence, the republic became a breeding ground for politically and economically motivated criminality and for radical Islamism. Its infrastructure was decimated, poverty and unemployment were at stratospheric heights, and promised Russian reconstruction funds were nowhere in evidence. Hundreds of Arab fighters arrived in the city of Urus-Martan to recruit jihadists. “They came to the market and paid with dollars,” said a city administrator. “There was no power here; there was disorder everywhere, and their influence was very strong.”

Aslan Maskhadov, elected president in April 1997, struggled futilely to combat radical opponents and strengthen relations with Moscow. He attempted to co-opt Shamil Basaev, his most dangerous political rival, by naming him first deputy prime minister, which only increased his influence. With inconstant backing from Moscow, Maskhadov was powerless to resist Basaev’s demand in 1999 that he suspend the Chechen parliament and declare Islamic Shariah law. A series of clashes between Russian and Chechen troops on the Chechen border soon followed.

The occasion for the second war came in August 1999, when Basaev led a multinational group of Muslim fighters in an invasion of Dagestan. As previously, Basaev represented not the Maskhadov government, but his ambition of creating a greater Muslim state that would unite Chechnya and Dagestan. A combination of Russian troops and Dagestani volunteers soon repelled Basaev’s army, but the violence was only beginning.

In September a series of apartment bombings in Moscow, Buynansk, and Volgodonsk killed hundreds and sent shockwaves throughout Russia. The public was immediately galvanized for a forceful, broadscale response. Yeltsin’s newly appointed prime minister, former FSB chief Vladimir Putin, delivered it. By the end of October, there were 150 Russian air strikes in Chechnya per day, and more than 124,000 Chechen refugees has fled into Ingushetia.37

The more aggressively he prosecuted the war, the higher Putin’s approval rating climbed: from 35 percent in August to 65 percent in October. Some Russian commentators suspected that the conduct of the war was in part a means of ensuring victory in the upcoming presidential elections. Putin, for his part, was unwavering, insisting that the very integrity of the Russian Federation was at stake. “I do not have a second of doubt that we are doing the right thing. Maybe we should be even tougher.”38 He rode the wave of approval to victory in February of 2000.

One factor that seriously tarnishes the image of Putin as the savior of a nation gripped by terror is the widespread suspicion that the September 1999 apartment bombings may have been the work not of Chechen rebels—Basaev and others who have no compunction about associating themselves with such acts have denied responsibility—but of the FSB, which orchestrated them in order to rally support for the second war. The suggestion at first seems beyond fathoming. But an incident in the Russian city of Riazan provides significant and troubling evidence.

According to accounts in the Novaya Gazeta and other sources, on September 22, residents of a Riazan apartment complex spotted two men and a woman carrying large sacks from a car with a Moscow license plate into the basement. They called local police, who determined that the sacks contained the explosive hexogen—used in other recent apartment bombings—and were set to detonate the following morning. As authorities established roadblocks to catch the terrorists, a local telephone operator overheard a call to Moscow in which a voice told the caller to “get away separately; there are roadblocks everywhere.” She reported the call to the local FSB, which traced it to “one of the official residences of the metropolitan FSB” in Moscow.

The next day, FSB General Aleksandr Zhdanovich confirmed that an apartment bombing by Chechen terrorists had been averted. The bombing of Grozny began that day. On the 24th, though, the story changed. The Moscow FSB announced that the entire episode had been “a training exercise” to test the responses of local residents. The sacks had been full of sugar, not hexogen, they said—though the Riazan bomb squad expert who had first inspected them insisted they were live bombs. Finally, the Moscow FSB ordered the release of the “terrorists” being detained in Riazan, who were in fact Moscow agents.39

Regardless of what conclusions one draws from the episode, two facts are clear: the apartment bombings in September of 1999 were accepted by an overwhelming number of Russians as justification for the second war in Chechnya, and Putin’s response secured his political identity and popularity as a strong, decisive leader in the face of terror.

How has the Russian president managed to avoid public outcry while the casualties of the second war in Chechnya have surpassed those of Russia’s 10-year-long war in Afghanistan, while organizations such as Human Rights Watch continue to enumerate the sort of war crimes and atrocities that so outraged the Russian public during the first war? Where are the voices of the 55 percent of Russians who claimed in a recent poll to advocate negotiations with Chechnya, as opposed to only 36 percent who favored a continuation of the war?40 How has he continued to enjoy popularity ratings of 70 percent or higher while the death toll from terrorism mounts each month? How, in spite of numerous apparent vulnerabilities, did Putin coast to an easy victory in his reelection bid this spring?

The answer is that for four years now he has led a steady and deliberate campaign not simply against independent media, but against political opposition in all its forms. When Putin proposed in mid-September to eliminate direct election of Russia’s 89 regional governors, as well as the single-mandate district elections by which half the members of the State Duma are currently elected, this move was met with widespread outcry in the West. One of the most visible protests came in the form of a September 28 “Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government of the European Union and NATO.” The 114 signatories, including Madeleine Albright, the former prime ministers of Italy, Sweden, Estonia, and Bulgaria, Vaclav Havel, Richard Holbrooke, Francis Fukayama, and a number of U.S. senators, wrote that Putin had “systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia’s political parties . . . [and now] has announced plans to further centralize power and to push through measures that will take Russia a step closer to authoritarian regime.”41

Putin continued to insist that he was acting to combat terrorism and accused the West of applying a double standard in its criticism of Russia. He was right, but not in the way that he claimed. The real double standard on the part of American and Western European politicians was not that they spoke out against increasing authoritarianism in Russia when they used some of the same methods themselves, but that they sat quietly through four years of increasing Russian authoritarianism and spoke out only when a major catastrophe called global attention to it.

On October 21, NTV aired a late-night political debate show that pitted liberal oppositionist and former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada against a hard-line pro-Kremlin Duma deputy. The deputy mocked Khakamada for what he cast as alarmist liberalism and pie-in-the-sky idealism. Then the host directed a question at him: What would he do if tomorrow morning Vladimir Putin announced that he was no longer to be called President Putin, but General Secretary Putin?

The hard-liner, for a moment, was struck dumb.

The Weak Are Defeated

A variation of the old Aesop tale of the fox and the cheese has joined the vast store of Russian political jokes, or anekdoty, that served as a mild but psychologically important form of dissent during Soviet times—as long as one was careful about where one told them. As the new joke goes, a raven gets a hold of some cheese and alights in a tree to enjoy it. Along comes a fox. “Raven,” he says, “are you going to vote for Putin?” The raven doesn’t answer. “Raven,” the fox says again, “are you going to vote for Putin?” Again, silence. “I’ll ask you again, Raven,” the fox says. “Are you going to vote for Putin?” “Yes, yes, I’ll vote for Putin!” the raven says finally. The cheese falls; the wolf gobbles it down and runs away. The raven sits and thinks gloomily: “And if I had said no, what difference would it have made?”

If the watchwords of the late 1980s were glasnost and perestroika, the watchwords of the mid-aughts are stabilnost and konsolidatsia. Yeltsin maintained power—at times only barely—in the chaotic first decade of post-Soviet life by means of a system of quid pro quos with regional leaders, the presidents of the semiautonomous republics, and the oligarchs. The extent to which such an approach may have been necessary to negotiate the turbulent political landscape left by the collapse of Communism is open for debate; in any event, it is an approach alien to Putin both by nature and by training. The current Russian president has approached and continues to approach potential rivals “with the standards of a security service agent, carefully defining what is his and what is theirs.”42 And, when necessary, taking enough of what is theirs to demonstrate where the real power lies.

A little over a month after being elected president, Putin acted to restrict the authority of regional governors in two ways. He first established an additional administrative layer between the governors and the Kremlin in the form of seven federal districts, the heads of which he appointed directly. Five of the seven were “former military, police, or security service officials, including KGB and Interior Ministry officers and two generals who had commanded forces in Chechnya.”43 His next move was to expel the governors from the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. Among the more significant consequences of this action was to deprive them of parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

In 2002, an election law amendment was passed mandating that half the deputies in regional parliaments be elected from party lists. As Kommersant Vlast explains, “that requirement . . . practically guaranteed that the majority in the regional legislatures would be aligned with the pro-Putin United Russia party and they could make sure that governors toed the line.”44

A number of governors responded by attempting to curry favor, proposing precisely the changes that Putin has recently proposed: that direct elections be replaced by a system of presidential nomination and regional approval. Ironically enough, at the time Putin played the liberal democrat. “I have thought and still think,” he responded, “that the heads of the constituent members of the federation must be elected by popular vote. This practice is already in place. It has become a part of our democratic state system.”45

Putin also worked to bring the republics to heel. The case of Ingushetia provides a dramatic example of how brazenly he has been willing to interfere with local electoral processes to ensure the election of his chosen candidate. During the 1990s, Ingushetia’s president was former Soviet General Ruslan Aushev—the only negotiator to secure the release of hostages at Beslan. Aushev’s presidency was distinguished by relative stability in the midst of the breathtaking unemployment rate of 90 percent, as well as the influx of over 100,000 refugees from both Chechen wars. Knowing as well as anyone alive the wars’ disastrous effect on the stability of the region, he was a vocal opponent of them throughout his presidency. This hardly endeared him to the Kremlin.

When Aushev decided to resign as president, the Kremlin contested the eligibility of the would-be successor Aushev supported in the 2002 presidential elections. Before Ingushetia’s Supreme Court could decide the case, armed guards stormed the court and seized the case file. The Russian Supreme Court proceeded to issue its own verdict barring Aushev’s candidate from the election. When the Kremlin’s handpicked candidate, an FSB general, received only 19 percent in the first round of voting, armed guards raided the office of the leading candidate, “seeking evidence that he had engaged in bribery and otherwise violated electoral laws.” Though they didn’t find what they needed, the Kremlin candidate nonetheless won a “surprise” victory in the second round of voting.46

On September 4, 2004, the day after the Beslan crisis ended in the deaths of over 340 people, Putin delivered a television address that provided the first hints of things to come. Among the problems that had contributed to Russia insecurity and the “horrible tragedy” in Beslan, he cited a corrupt judiciary, inefficient law enforcement, and the difficulty of the transition to capitalism. Yeltsin was implicated, though not mentioned by name. “We have to admit that we failed to recognize the complexity and danger of the processes going on in our country and the world as a whole,” Putin said. “At any rate, we failed to react to them adequately. We demonstrated our weakness, and the weak are defeated.”47

While a notable departure from the good-and-evil rhetoric that dominates the political discourse about terrorism in the United States, Putin’s speech was most remarkable for containing no reference whatsoever to the wars in Chechnya. In the coming weeks Putin would repeatedly disavow there had been a connection. “It is of course more advantageous for Putin to make [the] claim that there is an international connection in order to draw [the war in Chechnya] into the overall global war on terrorism,” said Magnus Ranstorp of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.48

The international element is significant, of course: the makeup of the terrorist group alone makes that clear. But the inclusion of eight Ingush among the fighters—not to mention the choice of Beslan as the site of the attack—also demonstrates a specific intention to exploit the instability in Ingushetia that is largely a product of the war in Chechnya. Moreover, the presence of radical Islamists from abroad in the North Caucasus is itself a product of the war. As Ranstorp told Radio Liberty: “There have been many members [of al Qaeda] that have traveled to Chechnya to try to take part in that struggle—as they have traveled to Bosnia and to Kashmir and to other places where Islam is seemingly under siege.”

Hardest of all to overlook are the demands of the terrorists. Among the Russian voices insisting on the seemingly obvious connection is that of former General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. “Unlike the president,” he told Moskovskie novosti, “I believe that the terrorist acts of the previous weeks are directly related to acts of war in the Caucasus. Already in 1994, during the first Chechen war, I understood that it would bring catastrophic consequences.”49

Clearly anticipating international criticism of his proposals, Putin took advantage of a previously scheduled conference with Western journalists and scholars in an attempt to smooth the way. He held a four-hour meeting with the group on September 10 at his dacha in Novo-Ogaryovo, a suburb of Moscow. Many of those present were impressed by Putin’s apparent candor and thoughtfulness, as was evident in responses such as the New York Times editorial “Stop Blaming Putin and Start Helping Him,” by Brookings Institution Fellow Fiona Hill. Hill asserted that Putin’s effort to stress the international dimensions of the Beslan attack was a result of his desire to “head off reprisals against Ingush, Chechens and other Muslims,” disregarding his motivation to avoid criticism of his own conduct of the second Chechen war.

Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Center for Defense Information’s Russian and Asian programs, was asked why Putin met with Western journalists and scholars rather than Russian journalists, who already felt alienated after the restriction of their work in Beslan. “One reason, in my view,” Zlobin said, “is because the president doesn’t feel he has an audience with which he can speak on equal terms. However, I wonder if the president realizes that this has been due to his own actions.”50

Putin’s first and most controversial proposal would eliminate direct election of Russia’s 89 regional governors. In their place, the president would nominate a gubernatorial candidate whom the regional legislature could then theoretically either approve or reject. The option of rejection is largely theoretical, since the president could then present either a new candidate or the same one a second time, and if the legislature again rejected him, the president would have the power to disband the legislature. Further provisions include no limit on the number of terms the governor could serve and the president’s right to dismiss the governor without the approval of the legislature.

Defenders claim that since the pro-Putin United Russia party currently controls only 17 of the 89 regional legislatures, the president would have to work in close cooperation with regional deputies to find a satisfactory governor—that is, if he chose not to simply disband the legislatures. But as Anatoly Medetsky of the Moscow Times points out, “United Russia has said . . . that it intends to control most of the legislatures in the country’s 89 regions by the end of the year—a goal that analysts call more than feasible.”51

Interestingly, there has been little protest from the governors themselves, but this is entirely in the interest of self-preservation. Since the adoption of the proposed changes is a foregone conclusion (United Russia, which has a constitutional majority in the Duma, expressed approval of the bill before it was even drafted), protest by governors would all but guarantee they would lose their positions. Many governors have in fact gone out of their way to praise the proposal.

The second major proposal involves the election of deputies to the State Duma—the lower house of the Russian parliament—which consists of 450 members. Since 1993, half of these have been elected by proportional representation from party lists, and the other half have been elected by direct popular vote in single-mandate districts, as in the U.S. House of Representatives. What this means, in effect, is that the only chance liberal oppositionists have to win a seat is in the single-mandate districts. Putin’s proposal involves eliminating single-mandate districts and choosing all Duma members by proportional representation.

So much for the opposition.

As to the constitutionality of these proposals, there is little agreement. The unwavering insistence on the part of Putin and his supporters that the de facto appointment of governors is in accordance with the Constitution seems disingenuous given his own previous statements. “The leaders of the regions are elected by the people in a direct, secret ballot,” Putin said in 2002. “That is what the Constitution prescribes, and that is how it should stay.”52 Independent State Duma deputy Vladimir Rykhkov adds that “[the proposed bill] also runs counter to a number of Constitutional Court rulings, most specifically the January 18, 1996, ruling in which the court held that only the direct election of regional leaders can be considered to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution.”53

On the other side of the argument, Sergei Kolmakov, vice president of the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarianism, told that while Putin’s proposed electoral reforms unquestionably violate the spirit of the 1993 Constitution, they have yet to be proven to violate the letter. Article 55 reads in part, “No laws denying or belittling human and civil rights and liberties may be issued in the Russian Federation.” “You will be told,” Kolmakov explains, “that the rule of people’s representation has not been violated because you still vote for deputies of the legislative assembly in your region. The president only proposes a candidacy while the deputies of the legislative assemblies elected by popular vote can either endorse it or reject it. . . . [T]he president will [say] that you still enjoy your rights in full, achieving the same results in two stages.”54

Putin and his spokesmen have several times made precisely this claim.

Central Election Commission secretary Olga Zastrozhnaya declared the proposed change to Duma elections unconstitutional, pointing out that the elimination of single-mandate districts would make it impossible for independent candidates to gain seats. Most commentators agree that is precisely what Putin wants, as the few genuine opposition voices in the legislature are independent deputies. According to Zastrozhnaya, though, this would violate Article 32 of the Russian Constitution, which states that “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to elect and to be elected to bodies of state governance and to organs of local self-government.”55

Central Election Commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov has also raised cautious objections. “It’s not elections we should fight,” he said, “but the dirt that accompanies them.” He further suggested that, constitutionality aside, the appointment of governors might lead to new levels of corruption and stagnation. Robert Bruce Ware elaborates: “Whereas regional elites were previously bound by their need for a local political base, Moscow’s expanded political influence has increasingly become the basis for their power, and has tended to insulate local elites from local accountability. This has already led to anger and resentment among village leaders and other activists who previously constituted the core of local political bases, but who are now finding their roles to be increasingly redundant.”56

Not that anyone expects this to hamper the bills’ passage.

Putin’s proposed reforms extend to the judiciary too. On September 29 the Federation Council considered a draft bill that would increase the president’s control over the Supreme Qualification Collegium, the body of judges that appoints Russia’s Supreme Court and Supreme Arbitration Court judges and is solely responsible for the firing of judges. The bill would allow Putin to directly appoint half the collegium’s members, who are currently elected by the All-Russia Congress of Judges. The bill would also give the president to the power to hire and fire the director of the administrative Judges Department, formerly appointed by the chairman of the Supreme Court. Sergei Popov, an independent deputy in the Duma, rejects the Kremlin’s frequently asserted goal of rooting out corruption as justification for this move.

“There are two main problems,” said Popov. “Judges are biased or corrupt in our judicial system. But you cannot fight against corruption by making them more biased.”57

The bill passed 175–2.

Finally, Ekho Moskvy recently reported that before the end of October, the State Duma is expected to consider a bill eliminating the direct election of mayors. A presidential source told the radio station that the bill would likely be discussed—and accepted—at the same time as the bill regarding the election of governors.58

The voices of protest inside Russia have been many. Typical of the concerns expressed in many newspapers were those of a writer for Komsomolskaia Pravda: “It’s clear that the idea for these reforms wasn’t born yesterday: The president has been bearing them for several years. Their swift realization certainly doesn’t stop the fear that these acts will cause serious detriment to the already fragile Russian democracy.”59

Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin have spoken out as well. In a Moskovskie novosti interview, Yeltsin expressed the hope that “the measures on which the nation’s leadership will embark after Beslan will lie in the course of those democratic freedoms which have been Russia’s most valuable achievement of the last ten years.” Gorbachev spoke more harshly: “Under the slogan of the struggle with terrorism there has been proposed a sharp limitation of democratic freedoms, a deprival of citizens’ ability to directly express their opinion to the government in free elections.”60 Liberal oppositionists such as the Yabloko party’s Grigory Yavlinsky and Free Choice 2008’s Irina Khakamada have been equally vocal. One Yabloko member, Sergei Mitrokhin, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “This is the beginning of a constitutional revolution. It’s a step toward dictatorship.”61

And though ordinary Russians continue to support Putin personally, they are deeply ambivalent about the proposed changes. A poll in mid-September showed that little more than half supported the changes to the election of regional governors, and only 38 percent either fully or partially agreed that the changes were “necessary to guarantee the unity of the state.”62

Given United Russia’s constitutional majority in the State Duma, none of this is likely to matter. Many suspect that Putin is paving the way for a third term—currently prohibited under the Constitution. He has previously claimed to have no interest in seeking a third term. He has also previously claimed that the Constitution mandated the direct election of governors.

“I don’t think there will be any sophisticated schemes,” said Yury Korgunyuk, editor of the political weekly Partinfo. “They will just strike the article about the number of terms.”63 The one hitch is that any constitutional amendment would have to be approved by two-thirds of the regional legislatures. That, says Vladimir Pribylovsky, is where the appointed governors come in. “On paper, regional legislatures would have to pass a constitutional amendment. . . . In fact, the governors would be expected to deliver the necessary votes. The amendment process takes one year plus several days. . . . Loyal governors could minimize the time involved; disloyal governors could drag it out.”64

The president will have to make sure not to appoint any enemies.

The Temptations of Nihilism

Deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov attempted to deflect criticism from the president by insisting to Komsomolskaia Pravda that by instituting the proposed reforms, “Putin strengthens the state, not himself. His current authority is high enough.”

It’s a curious claim. Are we to conclude that the transfer of authority formerly possessed by the legislatures, the judiciary, and individual voters directly to the president somehow weakens him? The murkiness of Surkov’s statement recalls the murkiness of Putin’s promise early in his first administration to create in Russia a “dictatorship of the law.” At least one American commentator seemed to have this in mind when he invoked in response Lenin’s decidedly unmurky pronouncement in 1918: “Dictatorship—and take this into account once and for all—means unrestricted power based on force, not on law.”

One meaningful and virtually inescapable correspondence between recent events in Russia and the United States lies in the dubiousness of the Putin and Bush administrations’ “responses” to terrorism. It has been widely reported that even though the Bush administration failed to hold a single meeting to discuss counterterrorism strategy before 9/11, deposing Saddam Hussein had been on the American president’s agenda from his earliest days in office. Critics claim that the war in Iraq hasn’t helped fight terrorism; one response might be that it was never intended to. Similarly, Putin not only planned but acted deliberately and concertedly to “strengthen the power vertical” from his earliest days in office. Now, under the pretext of fighting terror, he has accelerated the process dramatically, though he has failed to provide any real explanation of how his reforms serve to eliminate the vulnerabilities that Beslan made clear.

It’s unquestionable that the war in Iraq, at least in the short term, has made the region less stable and America less safe. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s perestroika will do the same for Russia—though there is all too much reason to fear that it will.

Michael Ignatieff recently published an astute analysis of the hazards to democracy presented by the war on terrorism entitled “The Temptations of Nihilism.” Though he writes with particular attention to the situation of advanced liberal democracies, one of his central cautions seems even more relevant to a country that has had barely two decades of democracy after seven decades of something dramatically different. Ignatieff writes:

The nobility of ends is not a guarantee against resort to evil means; indeed, the more noble they are, the more ruthlessness they can endorse. This is why democracy depends on distrust, why freedom’s defense requires submitting even noble intentions to the test of adversarial review. . . . [W]e are fighting a war whose essential prize is preserving the identity of liberal society itself and preventing it from becoming what the terrorists believe it to be. Terrorists seek to strip off the mask of law to reveal the nihilist heart of coercion within, and we have to show ourselves and the populations whose loyalty we seek that the rule of law is not a mask but the true image of our nature.65

Russia today is faced with the essential question that faces all democracies, especially in times of great challenge: Does it trust its own citizens enough to place real power in their hands?

Putin’s answer thus far has been a resounding no.

Among many frivolous invocations of all things Soviet in commentary about recent Russian affairs, one comment seems especially astute. As Viktor Shenderovich said to Moskovskaia Pravda, “[The Putin administration] is peacefully asleep on a pillow of oil export prices at $40 a barrel. It would be a good thing if it were to dream of the 1980s, when oil prices fell to $10 a barrel, and the Soviet regime collapsed, even though it had everything else under control: the media, the parliament, the military, the police.”66

It would be an even better thing if it woke up.

Epilogue: It’s Not a Secret That We’re Waiting

In the weeks after the Beslan tragedy, the ruined, roofless gymnasium of School No. 1 came to be filled with bouquets, toys, signs, photographs, and most affectingly, hundreds of glasses and open water bottles, as though for the souls of children who might still be there. The blackboards in classrooms around the school also came to be filled with messages of all kinds: expressions of grief, solidarity, blessing—and promises for revenge.

“Will we forgive and forget this?!” one reads. “Blood for blood,” says another. In the center of one blackboard was a single, compact word, drawn in lines so heavy it seemed the writer had tried to score them into the stone of the board: “Revenge.”

One man approached reporters in Beslan shortly after the tragedy. “Come back in 40 days,” he said. “On October 13, the strong men end their mourning and they’ll find all the terrorist bases in the woods.” Plans for revenge were hardly limited to vigilante killings of terrorists. An Ossetian prison van driver spoke with great anxiety about the likely consequences of an all-out ethnic war but only minutes later said, “We have to set up a strike force and go kill their children in Ingushetia. I wouldn’t go. If only Putin would allow it. He has the kind of savages that would go kill children in Ingushetia.”67

Tensions have been high between Ingush and North Ossetians since the 1992 conflict in which ethnic Ingush living in North Ossetia demanded the return of the land stolen from them during the exile Stalin imposed on them at the time of the Second World War. Estimates of the casualties ran into the thousands. “Where was the world 12 years ago,” an Ingush man asked a reporter, “when they shot our sons in front of our eyes?”

Ossetians in turn have mined the past in fomenting their anger toward the Ingush, repeating to any reporter who would listen the local legends of how the Ingush presented Hitler with “a white horse, a golden bowl, a golden pistol, a golden sword.”68

Since September 3 there have been numerous incidents of Ossetians, sometimes in groups hundreds strong, storming ethnically Ingush villages and threatening to murder the inhabitants, though thus far local authorities—and in one case the president of North Ossetia—have managed to avert bloodshed.

But if the desire for revenge on the part of Ossetians has been manageable up until now, it hasn’t all been due to the persuasive abilities of police and politicians. The traditional Russian Orthodox 40-day period of mourning only ended on Wednesday, October 13. That’s when many expected the chaos to start. Thus far there has yet to be a major outbreak of violence. But that was just what one Ossetian man told reporters to expect.

“It won’t be noisy,” the man said. “It will be quiet—one person at a time. It’s not a secret that we are waiting.”69


  1. Mattew Bunn and Anthony Wier, “Preventing a Nuclear 9/11,” Washington Post, September 13, 2004.
  2. Damian Grammaticus, “Beslan: The Survivors’ Stories,” BBC Radio, September 16, 2004.
  3. Andrei Smirnov, “Who Attacked Beslan? Profiling the Terrorist Group,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 7, 2004.
  4. Grammaticus, “Beslan.”
  5. Sergei Dyupin, “At That Moment, I Really Wanted to Live,” Kommersant Vlast, September 28, 2004.
  6. Dyupin, “At That Moment, I Really Wanted to Live.”
  7. Grammaticus, “Beslan.”
  8. Grammaticus, “Beslan.”
  9. Miklos Haraszti, OSCE Report on Media Coverage of the Beslan Tragedy, September 16, 2004.
  10. Arkady Ostrovsky, “Its Master’s Voice: Russian Television,” Financial Times (UK), October 8, 2004.
  11. Vladimir Volkov, “The Lies of the Putin Government and Its Media,”, September 8, 2004.
  12. Andrei Kolesnikov, “Life after Death,” Kommersant Daily, September 6, 2004.
  13. Francesca Mereu, “Russian TV Slow to Report the News,” Moscow Times, September 6, 2004.
  14. Egor Belous, “Gosduma zapretit oseveshchenie teraktov na TV i radio,”
  15. Mathew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? Brookings Institution Press, 2002; David Pinsky, “Putin and the Press,” New York University Law Journal, December 1, 2003.
  16. Pinsky, “Putin and the Press.”
  17. “From News Services, Russia Shutters Last Independent TV Station,” Washington Post, June 23, 2004.
  18. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, p. 162.
  19. “Anna Politkovskaya: It seems to me that the authorities have no answer,”, September 10, 2004.
  20. Haraszti, OSCE Report.
  21. Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: The Russian Federation.
  22. Oksana Yablokova, “Izvestia editor resigns over Beslan coverage,” Moscow Times, September 7, 2004.
  23. Anatoly Medetsky, “Izvestia still looking for an editor,” Moscow Times, September 30, 2004.
  24. “18 warnings issued to Russian media,” Interfax, October 6, 2004.
  25. Haraszti, OSCE Report.
  26. “Glavnyj redactor gazety Izvestia Raf Shakirov podal v otstavsku,”, September 6, 2004.
  27. Scott Peterson, “Russia Uses KGB Playbook on Press,” Christian Science Monitor, September 21, 2004.
  28. Yulia Latynina, “Heroism and Monstrous Incompetence,” Moscow Times, September 8, 2004.
  29. Quoted in Antero Leitzinger, “Historical Reflections on the War in Chechnya,” Perceptions Journal of International Affairs, September/November 1997.
  30. Leitzinger, “Historical Reflections.”
  31. Robert Service, A History of Twentieth-Century Russia, 1997/2003, Harvard University Press, pp. 276–77.
  32. Viktor Baranets, Lost Army: Notes of a General Staff Colonel, Moscow: Sovershenno Sekretno, 1998, p. 286.
  33. Baranets, Lost Army, p. 238.
  34. David Remnick, Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, Random House, 1997, pp. 282–83.
  35. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, p. 40.
  36. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, p. 44.
  37. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, p. 70.
  38. Vladimir Putin, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President, Public Affairs, 2000.
  39. Aleksandr Litvinenko and Iurii Fel’shtinskii, “FSB vzryvaet Rossiiu,” Novaya Gazeta, August 27, 2001; Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, pp. 81–82.
  40. Michael McFaul, “Putin’s Strong Hand Is Failing Russia (and His Allies in the West),” Washington Post, September 12, 2004.
  41. “An Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government of the European Union and NATO,” Moscow Times, September 30, 2004.
  42. Dmitry Kamyshev and Nikolay Gulko, “Vertical Russia—2,” Kommersant Vlast, October 4, 2004.
  43. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, p. 131.
  44. Kamyshev and Gulko, “Vertical Russia.”
  45. “Putin Proposes Changes to Parliament, Calls for Stronger State,” BBC Monitoring of Russian Public TV, May 17, 2000, quoted in Evangelista, The Chechen Wars.
  46. Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, pp. 134–36.
  47. Quoted in Steven Lee Myers, “Putin Says Russia Faces Full ‘War’ to Divide Nation,” New York Times, September 5, 2004.
  48. Mark Bauer, “On Beslan, Putin Looks Beyond Chechnya, Sees International Terror,” Radio Liberty, September 7, 2004.
  49. “Byvshie prezidenty kritikuiut reformy Putina,”, September 16, 2004.
  50. “Russia after Putin,” Rossiskie Vesti, October 7, 2004.
  51. Anatoly Medetsky, “Bill Lets Putin Hire and Fire Governors,” Moscow Times, September 30, 2004.
  52. Peter Baker, “Putin’s Plan for Governors Only Confirms His Control,” Washington Post Foreign Service, September 16, 2004.
  53. Vladimir Rykhkov, “Forget about the Constitution,” Moscow Times, October 5, 2004.
  54. “Constitutional Deadlock,”, October 4, 2004.
  55. “Election Commission Official: Putin’s Plan Unconstitutional,” RFE/RL Newsline, September 22, 2004.
  56. Robert Bruce Ware, essay on Johnson’s Russia List, October 4, 2004.
  57. Francesca Mereu, “Bill Puts President in Charge of Judges,” Moscow Times, October 1, 2004.
  58. Ekho Moskvy Novosti,, October 7, 2004.
  59. Quoted in “Serye i poslushnye,”, September 15, 2004.
  60. “Byvshie prezidenty kritikuiut reformy Putina.”
  61. Quoted in “Reformy Putina ne kasaiutsia Zapada, schitaet MID,”, September 15, 2004.
  62. Kamyshev and Gulko, “Vertical Russia.”
  63. Anatoly Medetsky, “The Buzz Is That Putin May Stay,” Moscow Times, October 10, 2004.
  64. Vladimir Pribylovsky, “The Streamlining of Loyalties,” Moscow Times, October 13, 2004.
  65. Michael Ignatieff, “The Temptations of Nihilism,” New England Review, vol. 25, nos. 1 and 2.
  66. Quoted in “The Kremlin’s new course: ‘The enemy is at the gates,’” Political Forecasts, October 6, 2004.
  67. Valery Panyushkin, “The Language of War,” Kommerant Vlast, September 22, 2004.
  68. Panyushkin, “The Language of War.”
  69. Mike Eckel, “Revenge Fears High after Russia’s Mourning,” Associated Press, October 10, 2004.


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