In the aftermath of the brutal raid by Russian commandos that ended the hostage crisis in a bloodbath, the popularity of Putin, who has built an image of a tough guy who will do anything to defend the fatherland, has plunged. At least 338 people, including many children, were killed during the raid. A governmental crisis has been provoked once again by the growing instability in the Caucasus, and the far-from-defeated movement for self-determination in Chechnya.
The 53-hour crisis began September 1. Armed attackers took over Middle School No. 1 in the small town in the middle of the Caucasus, and held nearly 1,200 people hostage, threatening to kill them if an assault was launched.
Military officials who began negotiations with the armed group, which initially resulted in the release of 25 hostages, claimed that the demands of the attackers were not clear.
The Russian government responded by surrounding the school with troops, tanks, helicopters, and armored vehicles. While Putin had said the school would not be stormed, two Special Forces squads were practicing an attack at a nearby school similar to the one occupied. A shoot-out reportedly began September 4, when a bomb was set off accidentally by those holding the hostages. The explosion sparked panic among the captives who ran outside trying to flee, only to find themselves caught in the crossfire between Russian commandos and the hostage-takers.
Responding to widespread criticism of how the government handled the situation, Putin defended the decision to storm the school, saying the hostage-takers had begun shooting children out of boredom, according to CNN news.
No one has a moral right to tell us to talk to child killers, the Russian president lashed out. Why dont you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?
To win support for its war against forces in Chechnya that demand independence for the southwestern republic, Moscow has stepped up its claim to be fighting Islamic terrorists.
Washington has backed the Kremlin on this position. The people who took over the school are terrorists, plain and simple, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a press briefing September 8. Groups that sponsor them are terrorists, plain and simple. They need to be fought, they need to be eliminated, and we stand with Russia very closely as they face that threat of terrorism.
Moscow claimed the 32 people who took over the school were part of a Chechen separatist group linked to international terror organizations. Providing no hard evidence, the government claimed this multinational group has links to al-Qaeda, and that among the hostage-takers were 10 fighters from Arab countries. Hostages who survived the carnage, however, have refuted this claim, saying they saw no Arabs in the school, BBC News reported.
Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian armed forces, said the Russian military will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world, including carrying out preventive strikes.
Over the past decade Moscow has launched two bloody wars attempting to crush the independence movement of the largely Muslim people of Chechnya in the northern Caucasus mountains. In 1994-96 the Chechen fighters defeated a massive armored invasion of Russian troops, humiliating the regime of Boris Yeltsin. Most estimates put the death toll in that war at between 30,000 to 40,000, the bulk of them Chechen civilians. In 1999 Putin launched another war that destroyed most of the territory and placed occupying troops in Grozny, the Chechen capital. At least 5,000 were killed in the invasion and occupation.
Despite the occupation, Chechen forces have engaged in hit-and-run guerrilla actions inflicting both political and military damage on the Putin regime.
The Putin government has a record in handling such incidents with brutal assaults that disregard the lives of the hostages. About 50 Chechen guerrillas, for example, took over a Moscow theater and held 750 people hostage in October 2002. Russian troops raided the theater, ending the takeover and killing 129 hostages and 41 hostage-takers in the process. The deaths resulted from anesthetic gas pumped into the building under orders of Russian officers.
The siege in Beslan was part of a series of recent attacks that have left some 500 people dead, including the downing of two passenger airliners, and a suicide bombing attack in a Moscow subway station.
The Russian government has offered a $10.3 million reward for information that could lead to the capture of Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, whom Moscow accuses of being responsible for the takeover in Beslan.
In the midst of the hostage crisis, Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya, publicly distanced himself from the attack and condemned the seizure of the school. There is no justification for terror against absolutely innocent citizens, he said, while expressing his condolences to the families of the deceased.
At the same time, the Chechen leader called upon the world to condemn the policy that has made such tragedies not only possible but unavoidable. Maskhadov accused the government of Russia of carrying out a genocide of the Chechen people.
The Putin government has used the tragedy to whip up nationalist sentiments and strengthen its so-called war on terror.
More than 130,000 people attended a government-sponsored rally held outside the Kremlin September 7 under the banner Russia Against Terror. Tens of thousands rallied in other cities across the country in mobilizations with similar themes, according to the Interfax news agency.
In a September 4 speech, Putin said that Russia had let its guard down after the collapse of the Soviet Union 13 years ago and would now need to rebuild its security against internal and external enemies.
Despite this campaign, the government has been facing growing criticism. The newspaper Kommersant said Putins emphasis on international terrorism serves Moscow and other governments to dodge responsibility for the killings. Its as if all the children did not die because of a war in Chechnya that has been going on for 10 years, but because international terrorism has been on the attack, it said.
It is strange that the president neglected the question of Chechnya in his address, said the newspaper Vedemosti, trying instead to shift responsibility to the people who divided up the country in 1991. referring to the disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus that led to the fracturing of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s.
Self-determination for Chechnya
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