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Analysis: Putin's 'Managed' Investigation Into Beslan

Shortly after the 4 September conclusion of the tragic school hostage taking in Beslan, North Ossetia, President Vladimir Putin said that there would be no public investigation into the incident. Speaking to Western journalists and academics on 6 September, Putin said that he would conduct an internal probe into the matter. He added that if the Duma looked into it, the investigation would become "a political show" and "would not be very effective," "The Guardian" reported the next day.

A few days later, however, a "political show" of a different sort got under way, Kremlin critics say. Putin held a televised meeting on 10 September with Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, in which the latter informed him that the Federal Assembly intended to create an interparliamentary commission to probe the affair. Such televised meetings have become a prominent feature of Putin's post-Beslan management style: on 14 September, for instance, he held a stage-managed meeting with Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in which the prime minister "informed" him that Gazprom should be allowed to purchase state oil company Rosneft.

As the cameras rolled, Putin told Mironov on 10 September that "we are all interested in getting a complete and objective picture of the tragic events," Russian media reported. Putin further said he would order all executive-branch agencies to cooperate with the legislature's investigation. Although Putin's apparent volte face might have been prompted by the negative reaction in Russia and the West to his statement rejecting an independent inquiry, no one expected that the meeting with Mironov signaled a real change of heart or strategy.

On 20 September, the Federation Council held a closed-door session during which the composition of the investigating commission was determined. A few days earlier, council Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Torshin told RIA-Novosti that the commission's schedule had largely been determined, even though its membership had not been named. Torshin emphasized that the legislation governing such commissions is incomplete and that the commission would have no authority to compel senior officials to testify. He added, though, that it might even ask Putin himself to answer questions.

During its 20 September meeting, the Federation Council decided that the commission would comprise 11 council members and 10 Duma deputies and would be headed by Torshin. The 11 council members are: Torshin, Defense and Security Committee member Aleksei Aleksandrov, Constitutional Law Committee Deputy Chairman Leonid Bindar, Industry Committee Deputy Chairman Erik Bugulov, Economy Committee First Deputy Chairman Vladimir Gusev, Legal and Judicial Affairs Committee member Rudik Iskuzhin, Audit Chamber Cooperation Commission Deputy Chairman Yurii Kovalev, Federation Council Affairs Commission Chairman Vladimir Kulakov, CIS Affairs Committee member Oleg Panteleev, Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Popov, and Constitutional Law Committee Chairman Valerii Fedorov.

The 10 Duma members are expected to be named on 25 September. Seven will represent Unified Russia, with one each from the Communist Party, Motherland, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. "Vremya novostei" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 21 September that there will most likely be no independent deputies on the commission, even though independent Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov was the first to call for an independent probe.

Mironov told "Vremya novostei" that commission members were selected in part on the basis of their contacts with the secret services. "People selected for the commission are ones who have a high level of access," Mironov said. The paper predicted that the Duma representatives would be dominated by Unified Russia loyalists and former security-service figures -- "people who won't ask 'unnecessary' questions."
Few analysts have expressed confidence that the commission would ever produce definitive answers to lingering questions about the Beslan events.

At a press conference announcing the commission, Mironov stressed that it will not conduct a public investigation. "Commission members will not have the right to publicize information about the progress of the investigation or to comment on it except at official press conferences sanctioned by the commission chairman," Mironov said, according to and other Russian media. Mironov said the commission will prepare a final report, but refused to say whether that report will be made public. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 21 September that Mironov has also ordered that commission members not be allowed to discuss the commission's work even after the probe is completed without his permission.

The semi-formed commission began work immediately and arrived on 21 September in North Ossetia to begin five days of testimony from local witnesses and officials. However, few analysts expressed confidence that the commission would ever produce definitive answers to lingering questions about the Beslan events, including the identities of the hostage takers, the exact numbers of hostages and victims, what the government's plans were for either negotiating with the terrorists or storming the building, and how former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev was able to negotiate with the hostage takers and to secure the release of 26 of the hostages.

"It will be impossible to have any confidence in this commission and its conclusions," Ryzhkov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 21 September, "because Unified Russia is compromised by the same authorities who allowed such failures in the North Caucasus and, in particular, in Beslan."

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