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Analysis: The Kremlin's Reaction -- Stay The Course

  • Robert Coalson --> Putin has ruled out any change in policy in the North Caucasus Nearly a week after the horrifying denouement of the hostage crisis at a school in North Ossetia, the Russian government seems to have formulated its response, a reaction that is characterized by bolstering the mechanisms the administration of President Vladimir Putin has installed over the last five years, rather than by any perceptible change of course. Putin and other officials have, predictably, ruled out any softening of the government's policies in Chechnya, going so far as to deny that there is any connection between the situation in the breakaway republic and the Beslan hostage crisis. "Just imagine that people who shoot children in the back came to power anywhere on our planet," Putin told Western journalists and experts during a Kremlin meeting on 7 September, Russian media reported. "Just ask yourself that and you will have no more questions about our policy in Chechnya."

He pledged that the Kremlin will proceed with its policy of installing a new administration in Chechnya. "We will strengthen law enforcement by staffing the police with Chechens and gradually withdraw our troops to barracks, and leave as small a contingent there as we feel necessary, just like the United States does in California and Texas," Putin said. On 9 September, the government announced a $10 million reward for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and for radical field commander Shamil Basaev, formally assigning the two men equal culpability for the Beslan events and seeming to destroy any remaining hope that the government might choose to consider Maskhadov an acceptable partner in the search for a political solution in the republic.
The administration so far has been more proactive in responding to the potential for a political crisis created by the Beslan events than in responding to that attack itself.

Having ruled out a change of course in this area, the Putin administration has focused on containing the public and political reaction to the events, which have been widely viewed as a failure of the administration in the very area -- security -- that it came to power promising to prioritize. The administration cannot help but be stung by comparisons between the latest series of terrorist attacks -- in which well over 400 people have been killed, including the 90 who died when two civilian airliners were blown up on 24 August -- with the fall of 1999, when more than 200 people were killed in a series of apartment-building bombings in several Russian cities and Chechen militants launched a major incursion into neighboring Daghestan. Putin was elected in large part because of his tough talk in response to those events and widespread public insecurity.

Now, of course, the administration is doing everything it can to make the claim that the latest incidents are not a continuation of this violence, but the launching of a new war against Russia by unspecified outside forces that are backed by other unspecified outside forces. The administration so far has been more proactive in responding to the potential for a political crisis created by the Beslan events than in responding to that attack itself.

Measures have been taken to keep the public focused on the tragedy of the events and on the need for ever greater unity, themes that Putin stressed during his 4 September speech to the country. "This is not a challenge to the president, parliament, or government," Putin said. "It is a challenge to all of Russia, to our entire people." He called on people to show their "responsibility as citizens" and said Russia is stronger than the terrorists because of "our sense of solidarity." The wave of government-orchestrated public demonstrations against terrorism in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities was the most visible of these efforts, with the administration marshalling its control of national television and of the quasi-independent Federation of Trade Unions to bring out good crowds. Only a few voices, such as that of Free Russia leader Irina Khakamada, could be heard pointing out that a spontaneous demonstration would have been more satisfying.

On the political level, the Kremlin-linked leftist "opposition" party Motherland has called for the resignation of the government in response to Beslan, a move that takes some of the pressure off of Putin. If truly independent forces in the Duma such as the Communist Party insist on forcing a discussion of the terrorist attacks, Motherland and Unified Russia will easily be able to make sure the spotlight remains on the cabinet and not on the administration. Although such a turn of events is highly unlikely, even the resignations of some cabinet members would not be perceived as a personal defeat for Putin, since the current government has been widely billed as a "technical government" intended to implement and take the heat for painful reforms such as the recently adopted social-benefits bill.

Perhaps the most telling example of how the government used the tools at its disposal to protect itself is how deftly the security forces were apparently able to deal with journalistic threats to the regime, as opposed to their less-stellar protection of civilians from terrorists. "Novaya gazeta" reporter Anna Politkovskaya and RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii, both of whom have long been considered by the Kremlin to be sympathetic to the Chechen cause, were both intercepted well before they got anywhere near Beslan and entirely prevented from reporting on the crisis. Babitskii was arrested on trumped-up charges in a Moscow airport, while Politkovskaya was apparently poisoned on a flight to Rostov-na-Donu, spending the rest of the crisis in a local hospital. In these cases, the security organs, the police, and the courts seem to have worked in close coordination to prevent any damage to the Kremlin's image or version of reality.

The Kremlin's response to Beslan is predictable, given the instruments of management that it has strengthened and cultivated over the past five years. Other instruments -- independent political parties, judiciary, mass media, and public organizations -- might have produced a significant change in political course, or perhaps even a significant crisis of stability. Instead, the administration's control of the security organs, law enforcement, the mass media, public debate, and the political process predetermine that its focus will be on managing the perception of the crisis first of all. And the more the foundations of that system are shaken by the events, the more the administration will bolster its control over those instruments, ensuring a policy that amounts to nothing more than "more of the same."

Of course, the security situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general will have to be addressed. But that response will not take into consideration calls for a real political process there to replace the sham of stage-managed referendums and elections and the facade of local administrations that is fully controlled by the Kremlin. It will not take into consideration calls for an end to human rights violations by federal forces in Chechnya: when asked about this during his 7 September meeting with Western journalists, Putin compared them to the events at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison, saying, "In war there are ugly processes that have their own logic." It will not take into consideration the widely perceived need to root out the corruption that has almost certainly played a role in every major terrorist incident Russia has faced in recent years.

Instead, the Kremlin will most likely rely on its control of society, of information, and of the political process to cover up an intensification of the military policies it has pursued in Chechnya for most of the post-Soviet period. The information blockade of the republic will be redoubled and the seemingly endless "antiterrorism operation" there will continue. But these policies are not without their risks. "There is fear if no one knows the truth," Khakamada told "The Moscow Times" on 8 September. "If people don't understand, it makes it easier for terrorists to buy people off. If we are slaves, it is easier for them to recruit. The more things are pushed underground, the better it is for the terrorists."

Factbox: Major Terrorist Incidents Tied To Russian-Chechen War

For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to