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Western Press Review: Moscow Theater Siege, 'Lula's' Victory, And Caspian Cooperation

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the major Western dailies today is preoccupied by the mixed outcome of the Moscow hostage crisis. Russian special forces released on 26 October an as-yet-unidentified gas into the theater in order to incapacitate the Chechen hostage takers. Russian doctors say the gas is responsible for 116 of the hostage deaths.

Other topics looked at today include the election victory of Workers' Party candidate Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva in Brazil's runoff election yesterday and pursuing cooperation in the Caspian Sea.


"The Irish Times" says the tragic loss of life in the Moscow theater siege is testimony "to the vulnerability of all societies to terrorists who are determined to lay down their own lives and have scant regard for the lives of civilians." A "potent mix" of Islamic militancy and a "beleaguered nationalist cause has fed recruitment [among] brutalized young people who have lost hope in traditional means and believe they will be redeemed in a martyr's death."

Terrorism, says the paper, is "ultimately a theatrical act. [It] is about transforming an unequal, unwinnable military conflict into a political struggle for hearts and minds. If the oppressor cannot be defeated by frontal assault, then, by sapping at his political base, he can be undermined."

But often such tactics can have the opposite effect, "hardening the will of the colonial power to resist. And few in Moscow this weekend believe the hostage taking will either increase sympathy for the Chechens or feed a war-weary desire to get out of the troublesome province."

"The Irish Times" concludes that the "tentative recent attempts to develop a political track in the Chechen conflict have been dealt a resounding blow" by the Moscow theater takeover.


"The Washington Post" staff writer Peter Baker says the hostage crisis in Moscow "quickly became a defining moment" for Russian President Vladimir Putin, "a test that could determine whether he continues to enjoy the admiration of the Russian people or sees his mastery of the political establishment begin to unravel."

The Russian political establishment "that had blithely ignored the tiresome war" in Chechnya has "suddenly found the conflict squarely in its own backyard," says Baker. According to a poll released on 25 October by the Center for Russian Public Opinion and Market Research (ROMIR), 53 percent of Russians blame the crisis on the government, compared to 16 percent who hold the Chechen militants responsible. Two-thirds of respondents wanted the standoff to be resolved through negotiation rather than force.

The second Chechen war has dragged on for two years, despite Putin's assurances that it would be a quick victory for Russia. Public support for the conflict "has waned significantly," Baker writes. One reason for this is the heavy toll in casualties. But Putin "has effectively ignored all peacemaking efforts."

Baker says the fate of the more than 700 theatergoers "has galvanized [Moscow] in a way that earlier crises did not. People who had never talked much about Chechnya before were suddenly consumed with it and demanding a solution."


In the regional daily "Eurasia View," analyst Mevlut Katik says the 22 October sinking of the Mercury-2 ferry in the Caspian Sea highlights the need for increased cooperation among Caspian states. The ferry sank five hours after sending an SOS call, and Katik says the disaster indicates that Caspian Sea nations might benefit from pooling their coast-guard forces and other efforts.

He says this tragedy "has helped highlight the Caspian states' lack of disaster-response capabilities. It also calls attention to the fact that the five littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- have yet to agree on a binding treaty concerning the sea's borders." Disagreement over the delineation of sea boundaries has inhibited multilateral cooperation.

Katik says a joint naval force "could have conceivably responded more promptly to the ferry's SOS call.... [It] could also prove useful in containing environmental damage [by] helping to coordinate cleanup efforts. A joint force could also potentially boost regional security."

But he acknowledges that "sensitive issues" would need to be addressed ahead of creating a joint flotilla. "Smaller nations worry about Russian desires for hegemony," while Russia and Turkey "have separate geopolitical interests regarding the Caspian and its border states." The United States is interested in the Caspian as a potential oil source and might also want to monitor any developments in the region.


In the German financial daily "Handelsblatt," Markus Ziener discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin's approach to the Moscow hostage crisis. He says it is Putin's "misconception" to identify the Moscow crisis as part of the mosaic of the "common enemy" of world terrorism.

Such an evaluation is "fundamentally wrong," the commentary says, adding that Putin should not think he can exonerate himself from all blame or that this event legitimizes a new military offensive in the Caucasus. "In Chechnya, Putin is not acting in the name of an antiterror alliance. He is pursuing national self-interest," which has little in common with the 11 September terrorist attack in the U.S. In the latter case, terrorism is based on a fundamental difference of values and views of the world, whereas the Chechen conflict has deep political roots that can be solved by political negotiations.

As far as the West is concerned, the commentary continues, it should be aware of the dire mistake it made in failing to criticize Moscow with regard to Chechnya for the sake of an antiterrorist alliance. "That was a fatal signal," Ziener writes, adding that it is to be hoped that Putin will desist from any rash response and will listen to the voices of his people -- who have had enough of war, are not obsessed with revenge, and demand an end to the casualties in the Caucasus.


An editorial in "The New York Times" says: "In the eight years that they have wrestled over control of Chechnya, the Russian government and Chechen rebels have descended ever deeper into a hellhole of brutish behavior. The two sides reached a new low over the weekend in their deadly showdown at a crowded Moscow theater that a band of heavily armed rebels had seized earlier in the week." The paper says it is already clear that both the Chechen rebels and Russia's government forces "disgraced themselves. The Kremlin and the guerrillas should come to their senses and settle a conflict that has left thousands of civilians dead and shamed Russian and Chechen leaders alike."

Both sides "badly miscalculated," the paper says. The Chechens "relied on terrorism to advance objectives that can only be achieved through political negotiation. Their willingness to murder civilians [left] the Kremlin with no choice but to try to free the theatergoers. The methods chosen, however, seemed to be drawn from crude security manuals written under Soviet rule."

The paper says the Chechens "have some legitimate grievances about a long history of harsh Russian rule." And Russian President Vladimir Putin "should recognize that he cannot end their insurrection through force alone."


Britain's "The Independent" says President Vladimir Putin was right to seek to end the siege, but that it is important to consider what went wrong. "It was essential both that attempts were made to negotiate with the Chechen terrorists and that preparations were made to storm the building," the paper says. "But the negotiations were always an unpromising route. The demands of the hostage takers were an end to the war in Chechnya and full independence for their homeland. Those may be legitimate objectives -- indeed, a Russian willingness to discuss them is needed to stifle terrorism at source -- but they cannot be secured by terrorism."

But it is questionable whether any agreement "would have satisfied the suicidal fanatics who had taken over the theatre. [It] was, therefore, not so much a question of whether to send in the special forces, but when and how." "The Independent" says the outcome was better than it might have been, as most hostages survived. But the use of the mystery knockout gas is questionable, and Russian secrecy surrounding its use are unnecessarily paranoid. Regarding how to handle hostage situations, the paper says a degree of openness would allow governments to "learn much from each other."


An item in France's "Le Monde" questions whether renewed debate will take place in Russia over the war in Chechnya following the end of the hostage situation in a Moscow theater. The paper cites Russian writer and political commentator Viktor Chenderovitch as saying it probably will not. Chenderovitch predicts that there will be a renewed wave of Russian patriotism followed by new demonstrations of military might in the conflict.

On 25 October, the day before the siege by Russian special forces, two small demonstrations against the Chechen conflict took place in Moscow. But "Le Monde" notes that the participants were mainly friends and relatives of the theater hostages, and were responding to demands by the militants inside. The paper goes on to note that the Chechen conflict has already been responsible for 4,500 deaths in the past three years within the ranks of the Russian Army, but notes that other nonprofit and rights groups place this figure at closer to 11,000.


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says the election victory of Workers' Party candidate Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva in Brazil's runoff yesterday makes him the "first left-wing president in the history of South America's largest economy." Most of da Silva's supporters are not asking for a return to socialism, but simply a better life, the paper says. If he is to satisfy those hopes, da Silva must focus on reviving growth and investment. But Brazil's economy will not experience growth "until it first reestablishes currency stability." Fear of inflation is "the main cause of its vicious cycle of capital flight, high interest rates, ballooning debt, and fiscal imbalance."

The editorial says da Silva can counter economic uncertainty "by endorsing central bank autonomy," and protecting it from political "meddling." In addition, he should go beyond the policy of inflation targeting that has proved ineffective. The International Monetary Fund's prescriptions for Brazil have been "a disaster," the paper says. Da Silva "will need fortitude to challenge the IMF's monetary stance."