The bloody end to the hostage crisis in Beslan resulted in unfathomable human suffering. More than 300 children, parents and teachers died in the gruesome fifty-two-hour siege that began when heavily armed Chechens–and possibly other guerrillas from the Caucasus–stormed Middle School No. 1. This unconscionable slaughter of the innocents came just days after a bomber–most likely one of the “black widows,” women who have lost husbands, brothers or sons at the hands of Russian forces in Chechnya–blew herself up at a Moscow subway station, killing ten and wounding scores of others, and the August 24 crashes of two airliners, apparently blown up by terrorists.
These latest acts expose the bankruptcy of President Vladimir Putin’s war policy toward Chechnya. After three years of peace, negotiated by Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin with the Chechen secessionists in 1996, Putin came to power by championing a renewed military offensive in that already war-torn region. From the beginning, he built his career and image on a promise to bring permanent stability, order and security to Russia’s people. Instead, his brutal policies, particularly against Chechen civilians, have spurred the wave of terrorism that now afflicts Russia. No less self-defeating has been Putin’s refusal to negotiate with the Chechen government, which his troops overthrew in 1999, headed by its last freely elected President, Aslan Maskhadov. During the past two years alone, more than 1,000 Russians have been killed in a series of increasingly lethal terrorist acts inside Russia itself, including those in a Moscow theater in October 2002. Meanwhile, since the first war began in 1994, more than 100,000 Chechens, most of them civilians, have died, fueling horrifying acts like those in the Beslan school. As a surviving hostage told a Russian newspaper, “The terrorists…told us that their own children have been killed by Russians and they have nothing to lose. I asked one of them how they could put the lives of our children in danger like this. He answered that no one asked his opinion about anything when his children were being killed.”
With his once-high popularity eroded by growing resentment over the Kremlin’s decision to replace longstanding free social benefits with inadequate cash payments, Putin tried in a nationwide address to deflect attention from the failure of his policies by linking the recent terrorist assaults to the “war” on international terrorism. “We are dealing with the direct intervention of international terrorism against Russia,” Putin insisted. His interpretation was immediately rejected by several opposition politicians as an attempt, as one put it, “to evade the responsibility for what is going on.” While some foreign fighters have joined the Chechen guerrillas during the past ten years, the essential driving force behind the resistance remains a nationalist struggle. (Indeed, initial claims by Russian security forces at Beslan that the hostage takers included ten Arabs, widely reported by the Western media, have now been disclaimed by the Kremlin.)
The Bush Administration, for its part, has engaged in what the White House, under different circumstances, would call a “flip-flop.” After first supporting Putin’s characterization of the Beslan tragedy, the Bush State Department then urged him to negotiate: “There must be a political settlement” in Chechnya, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Putin angrily replied, “Why don’t 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?” Putin says there is nothing to negotiate because Russia’s territorial integrity is at stake. But it’s clear that Maskhadov would accept something less than full independence from Russia, as indeed some other ethnic republics have within the Russian Federation.
For once, the State Department is right. For the first time in many years, voices can be heard in Russia calling for a political solution as the only way out. And yet Putin continues to reject the political nature of the Chechen war, blaming everything from Yeltsin’s legacy and the breakup of the Soviet Union to international terrorists and shadowy Western forces that support them, while trying to shut off discussion at home by cracking down on the media. But if he continues to refuse to negotiate with Maskhadov, who has repeatedly stated his readiness for talks and denounced the Chechen terrorists at Beslan, the situation in Russia can only grow worse: more acts of terror, possibly even against one of the country’s scores of nuclear reactors; more civilian deaths on both sides; and a widening civil war throughout the Caucasus.