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Western Press Review: The Dubrovka Tragedy, Oligarchs vs. Autocrats In Moscow, And Political Compromises In The War On Terrorism

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics addressed by commentary in major news dailies today are the seizure by Chechen fighters of Moscow's Dubrovka theater one year ago; the destabilizing effects of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia; oligarchs vs. autocrats in Moscow; and the West's dubious political concessions to repressive regimes in the war or terrorism.


An item in France's "Liberation" looks at the Dubrovka tragedy, in which some 800 hostages were held for three days by Chechen separatists demanding an end to the war in Chechnya. On 23 October 2002, 40-50 separatists seized control of the theater during a production of the popular "Nord-Ost" musical, threatening to blow up the building if their demands were not met.

Eventually, Russian special forces intervened, using a strong narcotic gas in the theater building to incapacitate the hostage takers. The outcome of this move was extreme, says the paper: 129 of the hostages were killed, almost exclusively as a result of the gas. The paper says a year later, many mysteries surrounding these events persist. No one knows why the hostages were not offered proper medical attention or why the Chechen rebels never deployed their explosives.

In spite of the high death toll, 63 percent of the Russian populace believes the authorities handled the situation well, according to a poll released on 22 October by the Romir institute.


An editorial in "The Moscow Times" says one year after the seizure of the Dubrovka theater, the Kremlin has done little to ensure such events will not recur. Following a "Moscow-orchestrated" constitutional referendum on 23 March and the election of a Kremlin-approved Chechen president on 5 October, the paper says the Kremlin, "rather than attempting the difficult work of dealing with the actual grievances -- human rights abuses, poverty, etc. -- on the ground in Chechnya, [has] chosen merely to conjure up a semblance of 'normalization' and political process." But "maintaining this facade has, for the most part, been counterproductive or worse." As Russia gears up for a parliamentary vote in December and presidential elections next spring, the paper says "the administration's overriding priority has been to ensure that Chechnya is a 'non-issue' and that it does not blow up -- literally or figuratively -- in President Vladimir Putin's face."

A key aspect of the Kremlin's "normalization" policy "has been its control over the flow of information from Chechnya and, in particular, its control over national television -- which [has] gone from preponderant to effectively monopoly control. There is no longer a national TV channel out there to challenge the Kremlin's version of events."

A year after the Dubrovka tragedy, "the gulf between the Kremlin's narrative and the reality" in Chechnya "is only growing." And this, says the paper, is "a potentially explosive situation."


Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," Erik Berglof of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics says there is a "running battle over who should rule Russia: an all-powerful presidency or an enlightened oligarchy."

The oligarchs "now face a stark choice." They can sell their stakes in privatized Russian industries "and bail out of Russia." Or they can stay "and plunge into Russian politics." After considering a presidential bid, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the head of the Yukos energy giant, was called in for questioning and a close associate of his arrested. "What is certain is that the price for entering domestic politics is high," says Berglof. The "flawed Russian Constitution [gives] the presidential office extraordinary legislative and executive powers." With a dependent judiciary and a Duma dominated by Putin loyalists, the lack of checks and balances adds up to a virtually all-powerful presidency. And yet Russia's oligarchs are "just as dangerous as the absolute ruler." They would be "highly unlikely to push broader property-rights protection or encourage more competition." Predictably, says Berglof, their influence is being used "to obstruct tax reform [and] bank restructuring."

"Merging politics and business into crony capitalism eliminates what is currently the only countervailing force to the strong presidency." Berglof says, "to expect anyone [to] work to restrict his own powers would be optimistic, at least." And he reminds us that this "paradox of the absolute ruler" is not only to be found in Russia.


Writing in "Eurasia View," Benjamin Brake of the Council on Foreign Relations says increasing the U.S. military presence in Central Asia could risk destabilizing the region. The Pentagon is reportedly considering making temporary U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan into more permanent deployments. But Brake says a more high-level U.S. presence could spur Moscow to increase its own military posture in the region, which it considers its strategic backyard, while inflaming local Islamic militantism.

Increasing U.S. cooperation with Central Asia's regimes may also "darken local perceptions of the United States by severely constraining America's ability to publicly promote democratic and economic reforms in host countries." Washington's softening stance on Uzbekistan's human rights abuses has already been widely noted, following the deployment of some 1,500 U.S. troops.

The hegemonic ambitions of both Moscow and Beijing cannot accept permanent U.S. bases in neighboring states. Brake says some observers already believe the U.S. military presence has made regional cooperation more difficult. Instead of relying on the heavy-handed tactic of stationing U.S. troops in sensitive areas, Brake says the U.S. administration "should do the more difficult work of nourishing multilateral cooperation." If Central Asia, China, Russia, and the United States can play "mutually supportive roles in the region," they may be able to collectively "promote a lasting peace while setting the invaluable precedent of constructive regional cooperation."


In a contribution to "The Independent," former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says Western governments must not pander to repressive regimes in order to elicit their help in the war on terrorism or any other campaign. "Nothing more discredited the conduct of the West in the Cold War than its willingness to form alliances with reactionary regimes around the globe" in its struggle against Soviet Communism, he says.

Uzbekistan is "a challenging case" for today's human rights advocates, says Cook. The regime of President Islam Karimov "justifies its repression as a necessary tool against Islamic militants." But such violent movements "will not be beaten by violence and repression, which only provide them with more martyrs. Nor does the existence of a fundamentalist movement justify the Karimov regime in suppressing bona fide critics of their human rights record: that only gives their population fresh reason to fear the regime and welcome its removal." If the government in Tashkent really wants to isolate these movements, it should "make common cause with those in their nation who want a more open society" than either the current regime or the militants are offering.

Cook says terrorism and militantism can only be defeated "if we stand by the values of liberty, tolerance and non-violence which are the strengths of the open societies they want to destroy. We provide grist to the propaganda mill of the fundamentalists if we allow ourselves to be associated with regimes who have as little compunction as the terrorists in using violence for their own ends." Terrorism, he says, "must be defeated politically."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Tomas Avenarius comments on the first anniversary of the hostage taking at Moscow's Dubrovka theater by a group of Chechen separatists demanding an end to Russia's war in the breakaway republic. The commentary focuses on the calls for justice from the bereaved families of some 129 hostages who died in the siege, and characterizes the "very Russian" relationship between citizens and the state. Almost all the victims were killed by the effects of a gas released by Russian special forces during the rescue mission.

Avenarius says: "During the hostage drama, President Vladimir Putin took a tough stance toward terrorists. But afterwards he was far from magnanimous toward the innocent hostages. The Kremlin awarded orders of merit to the elite members of the police force who stormed the theater, but the state has provided hardly any compensation for the victims."

This is typical of the Russian attitude throughout its past and present, Avenarius says. "Under Putin it continues to be evident that the fate of the individual does not count when compared with the interests of the state."

Power, as the Russians say, rests with the state alone, with all its interests, symbols and functions. The citizen is an assumed factor that it is safe to neglect. The Kremlin's uncompromising stance toward the terrorists may be absolutely legitimate from the point of view of the state. But from the viewpoint of the victims, it is a different story. He says the state "should have been more caring toward its citizens after the bloodbath." As long as the state fails to take responsibility for each individual citizen, Avenarius says the post-Soviet state will be incapable of reforming into a modern society.


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" comments on the memo sent this week by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to his closest Pentagon advisers and which was published on 22 October in "USA Today." In it, Rumsfeld uncharacteristically expresses doubts about the overall success of the war on terrorism.

The paper characterizes Rumsfeld as a man of "hubris incarnate" and "a sharp thinker" -- in fact, "one of the cleverest brains in Washington, who seeks to guide his bureaucratic office into the 21st century." The commentary adds that this in itself is "remarkable" considering that the self-critical, pessimistic doubts on the memo are also directed toward his own military, which are accused of lacking "modern thinking." The memo further admits that military reform remains in limbo, which has given critics of the U.S. administration "ammunition on a silver plate."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report)