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Russia: Moscow's Vow To Fight Terrorism Criticized Amid Theater-Raid Fallout

  • Gregory Feifer

The Kremlin says it is launching a U.S.-style war on terrorism following Moscow's hostage crisis last week. Security-agency budgets are being increased and suspects are already being arrested. But critics worry that kind of action will make it harder to achieve a peaceful resolution to what they consider to be the root problem: Russia's long-running and brutal campaign in Chechnya.

Moscow, 30 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- While Russians continue to come to terms with last weekend's hostage crisis, officials say they are gearing up for a war on terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week met with the heads of Russia's security agencies to discuss new antiterrorism measures. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said yesterday that Putin has ordered a revision of the country's national-security policy.

Speaking to cabinet ministers in Moscow on 28 October, Putin struck an uncompromising line. "I want to say and emphasize that Russia will never deal with terrorists and will not submit to blackmail," Putin said.

Using rhetoric strikingly similar to that of U.S. President George W. Bush after 11 September 2001, Putin said Russia would take the initiative in combating threats to its national security. "Russia will respond with measures appropriate to the threats wherever there are terrorists, organizations of these criminals, or their ideological or financial sponsors," Putin said.

Suspects are already being arrested. Among them are members of security agencies suspected of feeding information to the hostage takers before and during the crisis.

As the country yesterday buried the first of the 120 hostages who have so far died in the crisis -- all but two reportedly from effects of the gas -- most Russians are backing the theater storming. A poll by the All-Russia Public Opinion Center, or VTsIOM, put at 85 percent the number of respondents who support Putin's conduct.

Supporters point out that the government did not concede to the militants' demands and that the raid saved hundreds of lives that may have been lost.

But critics of the war in Chechnya say the government should now admit that its three-year conflict in the breakaway region is futile and that negotiations are needed to bring about a political solution.

Putin's labeling of the hostage takers as "international terrorists" has critics worried that he will only fan the crisis's root cause. The crisis, they say, was not Russia's 11 September.

Aslambek Aslakhanov is a Duma deputy and a prominent leader of the Chechen community in Moscow who held negotiations last week with the hostage takers. He said talks must be held with separatist Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov -- if it is true that he did not order the taking of hostages. "Once again the war party [in the Russian government] is saying there won't be any talks, and we'll deal with everything through war. War will never end until the entire population is eliminated. Because those terrible acts [by Russian soldiers] force people to take up arms. Women never conducted terrorist acts, never wanted to die. And now they're doing it, so you understand how bad things are. We have to find a solution through a peaceful resolution of the problem," Aslakhanov said.

The international rights groups Amnesty International yesterday released a report saying police and military systematically torture criminal suspects in Russia and violate international human rights and humanitarian laws in Chechnya. Human rights defenders also said they find parallels between Russia's conduct in the war and the handling of the hostage situation. Both, they say, show the Kremlin has little regard for the lives of its citizens.

Speaking yesterday at an Amnesty International news conference in Moscow, Duma Deputy and human rights defender Sergei Kovalev told reporters the theater storming gambled with the lives of all the hostages because the rebels could have easily sensed an attack was beginning and blown up the building. "I can assure you that the authorities very scrupulously showed us how much each one of us costs -- how much the 700 lives cost from the authorities' point of view. They cost significantly less than state ambition," Kovalev said.

The fact the rebels did not blow up the building has fuelled speculation they were not prepared to commit suicide, as they had claimed.

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who has covered the war in Chechnya and negotiated with the hostage takers last week, said there was a chance that negotiations would succeed. She told reporters that the government was not really interested in the lives of the hostages. "I have the feeling that an operation was staged to destroy terrorists as a show of strength and that we would not give way -- but not to free the hostages. Those are very different things," Politkovskaya said.

One of the chief concerns is the government's continued silence over what gas it used to neutralize the hostage takers. Western doctors have said it was likely a form or derivative of the opiate Fentanyl, and not a nerve agent as originally suspected.

Doctors were not told until just before the storming that a sedative gas would be used. The antidote, a drug called Naloxene, was scarce, though it was known its quick use is vital to restoring victims' breathing abilities.

During the operation, more than 700 hostages, most of them unconscious, were put on buses and ambulances, many without the care of emergency physicians. Reports said it took more than 1 1/2 hours to bring the hostages out of the theater.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, said yesterday that secrecy about the gas may have needlessly raised the death toll.

The liberal Union of Rightist Forces party, or SPS, had called for a parliamentary inquiry into the decision to storm the theater and into security lapses that allowed more than 50 heavily armed rebels to enter the complex. But that initiative apparently failed, with parliament adopting a resolution backing the government's actions.

Kovalev also criticized officials and the media for spreading false information.

Initial reports and statements said the raid began after the rebels began executing their hostages, but it later appeared that this was untrue. Kovalev says such lies have become a tradition in Russia. "[There are also] lies about the day before yesterday, that the hostage-taker terrorists provoked the storming [of the theater]. That's also lying. That raid was being prepared completely independently from the actions of the terrorists," Kovalev said.

But the greatest criticism is that the government is ignoring evidence that its war in Chechnya has failed and is instead pushing ahead with renewed vigor.

Separatist leader Maskhadov has denounced the hostage taking and repeated his desire for unconditional peace negotiations. Speaking after the raid on the theater on a video obtained Monday by RFE/RL, he said the crisis revealed the desperation of those living in Chechnya. Talks, he said, are the only way forward. "There is one intelligent, credible path [to peace]. That is to sit at the negotiating table. Any other way leads to death, blood, [and] hostages," Maskhadov said.

The Kremlin now appears ready to do anything but talk. It has branded Maskhadov a terrorist and says it will only talk about his unconditional surrender.