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Analysis: The Kremlin After Beslan

Putin at a Breslan hospital on 4 September President Vladimir Putin on 4 September appeared in a nationally televised address in the wake of the bloodiest terrorism incident in modern Russian history. He linked the takeover of a school in Beslan and the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers to a series of other terrorist incidents that have rocked the country since 24 August, including the 24 August downing of two jet airliners and the 31 August suicide bombing outside a Moscow metro station. In all, more than 400 people were killed in less than 10 days.

"What we are dealing with are not isolated acts intended to frighten us, not isolated terrorist attacks," Putin said, according to the text posted on the presidential website ( What we are facing is the direct intervention of international terrorism directed against Russia." He added that the entire country is now engaged in "a total, cruel, and full-scale war."

Putin admitted that the country has been victimized by terrorism because of its weakness. "We showed ourselves to be weak," he said. "And the weak get beaten." He went on to say that this weakness was a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union -- an event about which Putin expressed some regret -- as well as Russia's inadequate defenses and pervasive corruption in the justice and law-enforcement systems.

Putin also made several far-reaching statements that seem to be a notable departure from his general policy of deferring to the West and speaking of the need for cooperation with the United States in combating international terrorism. For the first time in several years, Putin said that Russia faces threats "both from the east and the west." Without specifically mentioning Chechnya or his own policies in the Caucasus, Putin seemed to place the blame for the increased terrorist activity in Russia on unspecified outside forces that are threatened by Russia's nuclear-power status. "Some would like to tear from us a juicy chunk," Putin said. "Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world's major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them. And so they reason that this threat should be removed. Terrorism, of course, is just an instrument to achieve these aims."
Putin said that Russia faces threats "both from the east and the west."

Because Russia's nuclear arsenal is targeted primarily at the United States, Putin seemed to be referring directly to that country.

However, does this really reflect the way Putin thinks? As a former intelligence officer and a well-informed political leader, he knows that the West has little reason to worry that Russia's nuclear weapons would be used against it in the current international environment. The West is concerned, of course, that Russia's nuclear arsenal could be a tempting target for international terrorists who are actively striving to acquire weapons of mass destruction. These concerns are increased by the weak and corrupt law enforcement system that Putin describes.

It would seem, then, that Putin's statements about external forces working against Russia through terrorists were addressed to his domestic audience, an effort to avoid political responsibility for the failure of his policies in Chechnya and the Caucasus. He also undoubtedly wishes to avoid forcing his beloved state-security organs to be accountable for this stark failure to protect Russian citizens. The externalization of culpability is often a defense of those in weak positions.

Effective Politics Foundation head and Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovskii told RTR on 6 September that during the Beslan siege the present political system demonstrated its uselessness because no political parties or politicians raised their voices against "the lies that overflowed the whole country."

Another Kremlin insider, National Strategy Institute head Stanislav Belkovskii told RFE/RL on 7 September that the Kremlin administration was seized by panic and dismay during the crisis, as reflected by numerous conflicting statements from Russian officials during this time.

The Beslan crisis has highlighted the failure of the Kremlin's policies in Chechnya, despite the concerted efforts of the Kremlin to deflect such considerations. Belkovskii noted that the Kremlin's policy in the region relies on pro-Moscow figures like Ingush President Murat Zyazikov and Chechen leader Alu Alkhanov, figures who all but disappeared from public view during the crisis.

The country's political parties -- on both ends of the political spectrum -- have only slowly been aroused from their lethargy and begun to criticize Putin's claims of external forces behind the wave of terror. In a statement posted on its website ( on 7 September, the Communist Party said "the roots of the tragedy can be found not in 'international terrorism,' which is a convenient smokescreen for the drama, but inside the country."

The Communist Party statement called for the resignation of the entire Russian leadership. "The Putin regime directs all its efforts toward the struggle with the [political] opposition, the suppression of the independent mass media, with producing the 'required results' in elections, and the construction of a vertical of power that proved helpless during this crisis," the statement said. "Law enforcement has been transformed into an instrument for carrying out the authorities' political orders."

Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii on 7 September also called for the resignation of the heads of the security organs and for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the terrorist attacks, reported. The Motherland party also called for the resignation of the government and for disbanding the Duma, which it dismissed as "a rubber stamp," the website reported.

Clearly, as the period of mourning recedes, many Russians are seeing the real face of the country's leadership in a whole new light.

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