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Russia Report: September 10, 2004

10 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 35
By Julie A. Corwin

If the "Kursk" submarine disaster of August 2000 caused a short-term dip in President Vladimir Putin's popularity, it's not difficult to imagine that the trio of terrorists acts in the past three weeks might also erode -- if only temporarily -- the 70 percent-plus approval ratings of Russia's commander in chief. After all, Putin came to power promising to "rub out" Chechen terrorists in the outhouse. Now, he -- rather than they -- appears to be on the run.

Although Putin's popularity may suffer, it's not clear that any other politician or party will benefit. The response to the events from Russia's weakened political parties has largely been confined to the issuing of public statements. It was the Kremlin and regional authorities, after all, and not the political opposition, who organized the nationwide "protest" against terrorism held on 7 September. Writing in "Izvestiya" the same day, commentator Aleksandr Arkhangelskii noted that while formally the trade unions organized the gathering of more than 100,000 people in central Moscow to express support of the people of Beslan, it was "understood" that they were simply stand-ins for the authorities.

Similarly in other cities, regional youth organizations were nominally listed as the organizers for protests, when in fact it was regional officials who were arranging the events, frequently by resorting to "traditional organizational methods," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 8 September. And, if "Vedomosti's" reporting on 8 September is correct, deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov deserves the real credit, since he reportedly orchestrated the series of antiterrorist rallies on the president's orders. Surkov is widely credited for overseeing Unified Russia's victory in the December 2003 State Duma election.

Writing in "Izvestiya," Arkhangelskii asked, "Why does our opposition prefer to tearfully complain about the Kremlin, but does not summon the people even when they would follow?" He continued, "Yes, the authorities would not allow meetings with antigovernment slogans...[but] what if [we] were simply silent, standing shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, demonstrating to ourselves and to our hated enemy and that [we] are not afraid? And, afterwards having revived their trust and rallied potential voters, the opposition could organize an antigovernment meeting under less dramatic circumstances."

Arkhangelskii answers his own question by pointing to the personal shortcomings of individual liberal politicians. While those may be contributing factors, another possibility is that the law on public demonstrations and street rallies is already having its intended effect. According to the new law, relevant authorities must be notified no more than 15 days and no less than 10 days before an event, which means that the organizers of the 7 September rally against terrorism should have applied for permission sometime between 22 and 27 August -- before the seizure of the school in Beslan even began, "Kommersant-Daily" noted on 8 September. However, mayoral-administration officials denied that any regulations had been violated in order for the event to be held, and Moscow trade-union leader Mikhail Nagaitsev told the daily that the meeting was originally going to be held just to commemorate the 25 August collision of the two airplanes that resulted in 90 deaths. However, the Club for Heroes of the Soviet Union, which was another one of the formal organizers of the event, told the daily that it learned of the meeting only on 6 September.

The political opposition not only lacks the assurance that legal officials will look the other way when it comes to completing the necessary paperwork on time to hold a demonstration, they also lack the "administrative resources" necessary to ensure a good turnout. According to on 7 September, railway workers, medical-establishment employees, and students at higher educational institutions were all "tasked" with attending the 7 September protest against terror. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 8 September, the police helpfully rearranged protesters so that persons bearing the same signs wouldn't be standing next to one another.

The irony is that all the arm-twisting and heavy-handed organizing may not have been completely necessary. "Vedomosti" reported that some people came to the rally in Moscow simply because they couldn't stay home and watch TV. And "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted that many residents of St. Petersburg of their own accord burned candles in their windows in memory of the victims of Beslan. At the demonstration, everyone cried, even men, especially when two large screens showed fresh news from Beslan.

Pollsters will soon measure how and whether Putin's popularity has been affected by Beslan. A longer-lasting effect of the recent wave of terrorism than a movement up or down in Putin's approval rating may be a further expansion of the state on the pretext of preventing new terrorist acts. Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel, a recent convert to the cause of the Unified Russia party, suggested at a press conference in Yekaterinburg on 6 September that like Americans, Russians are ready to give up part of their rights for greater safety, "Novyi region" reported on 6 September. Rossel said: "We are ready to limit our rights in the name of the security of our children. Today we say: less political intrigues, more security. Society is ready to grant the president additional powers in the struggle against terrorism." And with additional powers and an even stronger state, President Putin may find public opinion less and less relevant.

By Robert Coalson

Nearly a week after the horrifying denouement of the hostage crisis at a school in North Ossetia, the Russian government seems to have formulated its response, a reaction that is characterized by bolstering the mechanisms the administration of President Vladimir Putin has installed over the last five years, rather than by any perceptible change of course. Putin and other officials have, predictably, ruled out any softening of the government's policies in Chechnya, going so far as to deny that there is any connection between the situation in the breakaway republic and the Beslan hostage crisis. "Just imagine that people who shoot children in the back came to power anywhere on our planet," Putin told Western journalists and experts during a Kremlin meeting on 7 September, Russian media reported. "Just ask yourself that and you will have no more questions about our policy in Chechnya."

He pledged that the Kremlin will proceed with its policy of installing a new administration in Chechnya. "We will strengthen law enforcement by staffing the police with Chechens and gradually withdraw our troops to barracks, and leave as small a contingent there as we feel necessary, just like the United States does in California and Texas," Putin said. On 9 September, the government announced a $10 million reward for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and for radical field commander Shamil Basaev, formally assigning the two men equal culpability for the Beslan events and seeming to destroy any remaining hope that the government might choose to consider Maskhadov an acceptable partner in the search for a political solution in the republic.

Having ruled out a change of course in this area, the Putin administration has focused on containing the public and political reaction to the events, which have been widely viewed as a failure of the administration in the very area -- security -- that it came to power promising to prioritize. The administration cannot help but be stung by comparisons between the latest series of terrorist attacks -- in which well over 400 people have been killed, including the 90 who died when two civilian airliners were blown up on 24 August -- with the fall of 1999, when more than 200 people were killed in a series of apartment-building bombings in several Russian cities and Chechen militants launched a major incursion into neighboring Daghestan. Putin was elected in large part because of his tough talk in response to those events and widespread public insecurity.

Now, of course, the administration is doing everything it can to make the claim that the latest incidents are not a continuation of this violence, but the launching of a new war against Russia by unspecified outside forces that are backed by other unspecified outside forces. The administration so far has been more proactive in responding to the potential for a political crisis created by the Beslan events than in responding to that attack itself.

Measures have been taken to keep the public focused on the tragedy of the events and on the need for ever greater unity, themes that Putin stressed during his 4 September speech to the country. "This is not a challenge to the president, parliament, or government," Putin said. "It is a challenge to all of Russia, to our entire people." He called on people to show their "responsibility as citizens" and said Russia is stronger than the terrorists because of "our sense of solidarity." The wave of government-orchestrated public demonstrations against terrorism in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities was the most visible of these efforts, with the administration marshalling its control of national television and of the quasi-independent Federation of Trade Unions to bring out good crowds. Only a few voices, such as that of Free Russia leader Irina Khakamada, could be heard pointing out that a spontaneous demonstration would have been more satisfying.

On the political level, the Kremlin-linked leftist "opposition" party Motherland has called for the resignation of the government in response to Beslan, a move that takes some of the pressure off of Putin. If truly independent forces in the Duma such as the Communist Party insist on forcing a discussion of the terrorist attacks, Motherland and Unified Russia will easily be able to make sure the spotlight remains on the cabinet and not on the administration. Although such a turn of events is highly unlikely, even the resignations of some cabinet members would not be perceived as a personal defeat for Putin, since the current government has been widely billed as a "technical government" intended to implement and take the heat for painful reforms such as the recently adopted social-benefits bill.

Perhaps the most telling example of how the government used the tools at its disposal to protect itself is how deftly the security forces were apparently able to deal with journalistic threats to the regime, as opposed to their less-stellar protection of civilians from terrorists. "Novaya gazeta" reporter Anna Politkovskaya and RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii, both of whom have long been considered by the Kremlin to be sympathetic to the Chechen cause, were both intercepted well before they got anywhere near Beslan and entirely prevented from reporting on the crisis. Babitskii was arrested on trumped-up charges in a Moscow airport, while Politkovskaya was apparently poisoned on a flight to Rostov-na-Donu, spending the rest of the crisis in a local hospital. In these cases, the security organs, the police, and the courts seem to have worked in close coordination to prevent any damage to the Kremlin's image or version of reality.

The Kremlin's response to Beslan is predictable, given the instruments of management that it has strengthened and cultivated over the past five years. Other instruments -- independent political parties, judiciary, mass media, and public organizations -- might have produced a significant change in political course, or perhaps even a significant crisis of stability. Instead, the administration's control of the security organs, law enforcement, the mass media, public debate, and the political process predetermine that its focus will be on managing the perception of the crisis first of all. And the more the foundations of that system are shaken by the events, the more the administration will bolster its control over those instruments, ensuring a policy that amounts to nothing more than "more of the same."

Of course, the security situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general will have to be addressed. But that response will not take into consideration calls for a real political process there to replace the sham of stage-managed referendums and elections and the facade of local administrations that is fully controlled by the Kremlin. It will not take into consideration calls for an end to human rights violations by federal forces in Chechnya: when asked about this during his 7 September meeting with Western journalists, Putin compared them to the events at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison, saying, "In war there are ugly processes that have their own logic." It will not take into consideration the widely perceived need to root out the corruption that has almost certainly played a role in every major terrorist incident Russia has faced in recent years.

Instead, the Kremlin will most likely rely on its control of society, of information, and of the political process to cover up an intensification of the military policies it has pursued in Chechnya for most of the post-Soviet period. The information blockade of the republic will be redoubled and the seemingly endless "antiterrorism operation" there will continue. But these policies are not without their risks. "There is fear if no one knows the truth," Khakamada told "The Moscow Times" on 8 September. "If people don't understand, it makes it easier for terrorists to buy people off. If we are slaves, it is easier for them to recruit. The more things are pushed underground, the better it is for the terrorists."

By Victor Yasmann

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 subway 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." 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 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, in 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 similarly 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.

8 September: Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei will visit Russia

10-11 September: President Putin will visit Germany

12 September: Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov will visit North Korea

13-14 September: Fourth annual meeting of the Russian Jewish Congress

14 September: British Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, will visit Petrozavodsk

14-17 September: Third annual Baikal Economic Forum will take place

15 September: Summit of CIS presidents will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan

15 September: Russia will play supervisory role at OPEC meeting in Vienna

15-18 September: The third International Conference of Mayors of World Cities will be held in Moscow

15 September: Supreme Court will render a final decision on when to hold gubernatorial elections in Samara Oblast

20 September: The State Duma's fall session will begin

20-23 September: South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun to visit Russia

21 September: U.S. pianist Van Cliburn will perform a concert in Moscow in memory of the victims of the Beslan tragedy

26 September: State Duma will consider draft 2005 budget in its first reading

29 September: Auction for the government's stake in LUKoil will be held

October: President Putin will visit China

October: International forum of the Organization of the Islamic Conference will be held in Moscow

1 October: Deadline for population to select a management company to handle their pension monies, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 September

1 October: Date by which the government will decide whether to sell a controlling stake in Aeroflot, according to Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref

7 October: President Putin's birthday

10 October: Mayoral elections scheduled for Magadan

23-26 October: Second anniversary of the Moscow theater hostage crisis

25 October: First anniversary of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii's arrest at an airport in Novosibirsk

31 October: Presidential election in Ukraine

November: Gubernatorial election in Pskov and Kurgan oblasts

14 November: Mayoral election will take place in Blagoveshchensk

20 November: Sixth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova

22 November: President Putin to visit Brazil

December: A draft law on toll roads will be submitted to the government, according to the Federal Highways Agency's Construction Department on 6 April

December: Gubernatorial elections in Vladimir, Bryansk, Kamchatka, Ulyanovsk, and Volgograd oblasts; Khabarovsk Krai; and Ust-Ordynskii Autonomous Okrug

December: Presidential elections in Marii-El and Khakasia republics

5 December: By-elections for State Duma seats will be held in two single-mandate districts in Ulyanovsk and Moscow

5 December: Gubernatorial election will be held in Astrakhan Oblast

29 December: State Duma's fall session will come to a close

1 February 2005: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday

March 2005: Gubernatorial election in Saratov Oblast.