Beslan Mothers Say New Video Refutes Official VersionJuly 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Relatives of the more than 330 victims of the Beslan school siege have released a video that they say proves Russian security forces caused the massacre by firing grenades on the besieged building.
Many of the relatives of those killed at the bloody school siege in September, 2004, have never believed the official version of events.
An initial inquiry concluded that the fiery conclusion to the crisis was caused by explosions inside the school hall, where Chechen separatists had held more than 1,000 people, most of them children, hostage for three days.
Now a video posted anonymously and linked to the Beslan Mothers Committee website appears to show that the explosions were caused by weapons fired from outside the building, where Russian special forces were preparing to storm the school on the third day.
Over 330 victims, more than half of them children, were killed in the siege, which ended in chaos when security forces stormed the sports hall to free the children and parents.
Aneta Gadiyeva, a member of the Beslan Mothers Committee who lost her daughter in the massacre, says the video supports her theory that security forces fired two grenade rounds on the school gymnasium, starting a fire that then engulfed the building.
She told RFE/RL that the committee is appealing to investigators to watch the video: "We are once again appealing to the authorities to make this tape available to investigators, although in fact they had this tape, but they did not take it into consideration. For some reason they decided not to include this tape [in the investigation]."
Marina Litvinovich, the editor of the Truth about Beslan website, told RFE/RL the video refutes the official version of events.
"[This tape] confirms the original version of the events that unfolded in the Beslan school on September 3: that the explosions came not from the hostage-takers within the hall, but that the school was targeted by machine-gun fire and grenades from outside the hall," Litvinovich said.
In the video, children are seen running from the building before two loud blasts are heard -- apparently from outside the sports hall. But last year, the official commission into the Beslan tragedy vindicated the security forces and said that the explosions were caused by the hostage-takers, who set off booby traps.
Families of those killed in the school siege are still waiting for investigators to deliver a final report on the tragedy. But they say the video they have received supports their theory that there has been an official cover-up.
An independent report by explosives expert Yury Savelyev alleged that Russian security forces were responsible for two explosions that triggered the storming of the school.
Sergei Markedonov, a political analyst at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis and an expert on the Caucasus region, said he can't understand why the authorities have not taken some responsibility for what happened.
"I think that unfortunately September 1 will forever be associated with the events of Beslan, and it seems to me that there are some serious lessons to be learned from this. It seems to me that the head of the Russian government could participate more fully in the events of Beslan," Markedonov said.
The only hostage-taker officials say survived the siege, Nurpashi Kulayev, was jailed last year for life for his part in the siege.
(RFE/RL's North Caucasus and Russian services contributed to this report. With additional material from Reuters.)
Race To The North Pole
The Arctic could be a new battleground in the souring relations between Russia and the West.
One of the key figures of the expedition, which left on July 24 and should reach the North Pole in four days, is Russian polar explorer and State Duma Deputy Artur Chilingarov.
Russian scientists hope to bolster Russia's claim on 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic territory, which Russia estimates to contain at least 10 billion tons of oil and natural-gas reserves.
Chilingarov and two other explorers are expected to plunge directly under the geographic North Pole, which lies in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, to a depth of 4,300 meters. They will dive down in a deepwater manned submersible "Mir," which was used to investigate the wreck of the "Titanic." On the seabed, Chilingarov and his colleagues will carry out several scientific experiments and install a special titanium capsule adorned with the Russian flag.
The Kremlin has given high priority to the expedition. Russian President Vladimir Putin has given Chilingarov the status of presidential envoy to the Arctic. All national television networks, including the 24-hour English-language news channel Russia Today, have sent teams for live coverage of the event.
The Arctic and Antarctica are the last vast untapped reservoirs of mineral resources on the planet. Underneath the Arctic Ocean, there are gigantic reserves of tin, manganese, nickel, gold, platinum, and diamonds. There are also huge fish stocks. Importantly, the nautical route along the Russian northern coastline is the shortest way from Europe to America and Asia.
But the Arctic's most lucrative treasure is the enormous deposits of oil and gas, which could amount to 25 percent of the world's resources.
With growing demand on the world energy market -- particularly the rising consumption of China and India -- these resources are likely to be the source of international competition in years to come, particularly among the Arctic littoral states of Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the United States.
Global warming in the Arctic region has increased the likely profitability of extracting mineral resources. As the ice pack melts, tanker shipment of oil becomes more feasible.
Shelving The Issue
The competition for resources will be more acute because of the unresolved status of the Arctic shelf.
In 1926, the Soviet government claimed the whole Arctic sector adjoined to the Russian polar coast. This is a gigantic triangle that begins at the former western border of the USSR, stretches to the middle of Bering Strait, and has its apex at the North Pole. However, no country has recognized this delineation. Under international law, the Arctic region is no man's land.
Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1997. Under the convention, coastal states have the right to 12 nautical miles of territorial water from their coasts and exclusive economic rights to a 200-mile economic zone. But the delineations are complicated by undersea shelves. If the shelf is longer than 200 miles, the coastal state still has the rights for the mineral resources.
By ratifying the UN convention, Russia did not uphold the Soviet Union's Arctic claims. But now the Kremlin is trying a new tack.
The Kremlin is attempting to show that the Eurasian continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile zone. That can be done by showing that the shelf is a continuation of the Eurasian continent. And that is precisely the goal of the present Russian North Pole expedition, who are trying to prove that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is a geological extension of Siberia.
In 2002, a UN committee that administers UNCLOS did not uphold the Russian claim filed in December 2001 on the extension of the continental shelf, saying it proved insufficient and more research was needed. UN scientists said that, according to Russia's argument, the Lomonosov Ridge could also be seen as an extension of Greenland or Canada. (In fact, Danish and Canadian scientists are both working on proving their own claims that the ridge is an extension of their continental shelves.)
Increased Arctic Presence
Since that time, however, Russia has steadily increased its civil and military presence in the Arctic. In 2004, the Federal Security Service (FSB) announced the creation of a new Arctic Directorate, and new border-guard stations at Zemlya Frantsa-Iosefa (Franz Josef Land) and Severnaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean.
The same year, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev made a spectacular landing on the ice at the North Pole and erected the Russian flag. (In January 2007, Patrushev flew to the South Pole to erect the Russian flag.)
Moscow has also increased funding of polar research and announced the construction of 20 new meteorological and monitoring stations in the region. Russian petrochemical giants Gazprom and LUKoil have also announced plans to build a big fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers.
Armed with newly regained political and economic clout -- and some new scientific data -- the Kremlin is preparing to file a new claim at the United Nations.
Western countries are concerned about Russia's plans for the Arctic. On May 16, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) urged the Senate to ratify UNCLOS. If the United States did not ratify the convention, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Russia would press its claims without the United States at the negotiating table.
Canada, which has the second-longest Arctic coastline, is equally concerned about Russian claims. An article in the Canadian "National Post" daily quoted defense analyst Brian MacDonald as warning that Russia's presence in the polar region underscores Canada's lacking presence.
"It demonstrates that Russians have capacity to move in the Arctic, and we don't. Unless we do something soon, such as deploy ships in the region, we are going to weaken our own claims to sovereignty," MacDonald said.
As energy politics continues to be the fulcrum of geopolitics, Russia's Arctic stand makes a new clash with the West over polar resources seem inevitable.
No Idle Summer Days For Political Youth
Some 10,000 young Russians have converged on the shores of Lake Seliger in Tver Oblast, some 350 kilometers northwest of Moscow. They come from 50 different regions and represent a wide variety of political and social concerns.
But when it comes to "our choice," the distinctions fade away. This is the annual summer camp organized by the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Our Own), and for its young participants, there is only one choice -- Vladimir Putin.
"I respect him," says Svetlana Shirokova, a Nashi activist at the two-week retreat. "He's simply a real man."
Asked whether the incumbent deserves a third term when his mandate expires in 2008, Shirokova says, "Of course! I'd really like him to be president."
And if he leaves after his constitutionally prescribed two-term limit, as he has vowed? "We'll look for a person who will continue the course laid by Putin."
Work, Play, And Political Awareness
The Nashi camp is the biggest and fastest-growing of the country's political youth retreats, but it isn't the only one. In Moscow Oblast, on the Oka River, organizers from the youth group Mestniye (The Locals) are staging a similar event for more than 1,000 of its members.
"This is first and foremost an educational camp," says Maria Shapovalova, the press secretary for Mestniye. "The kids will hear lectures on psychology, rhetoric, geopolitics, and contemporary Russian history."
Scheduled lecturers include Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov, film director Nikita Mikhalkov, and Olympic cross-country ski champion Larisa Lazutina.
It's not all work and no play for Mestniye campers. Athletic competitions are among the diversions on offer, as is a preelection game in which participants can hone their understanding of the electoral system before they're asked to head to the ballot box for the State Duma vote in December and the presidential ballot in March 2008.
"They'll be divided into two groups," Shapovalova says. "One group will be the various parties campaigning for votes. And the other group are the voters, who will choose who deserves most to win. We're preparing these guys for the upcoming ballots, because it's their civil right to vote."
Mestniye officially focuses on politics in Moscow Oblast, rather than at the federal level. Organizers profess to be uninterested in which candidates their members choose to support.
"Unfortunately, young people don't vote. They're inactive," Shapovalova says. "We're calling on them to play their part in civil society and vote. They don't have to be voting for someone concrete."
Investing In The Future
Youth groups like Nashi, Mestniye, and Molodaya gvardia (Young Guard) are all believed to have strong financial and administrative support from the government.
They are notorious for their frequent use of in-your-face tactics, like Nashi's noisy disruption of a press conference held by the Estonian ambassador in May, at a time when Russia was deeply angered by Tallinn's decision to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial.
Russia's political opposition supports its own youth groups, as well. Ilya Yashin, the head of Yabloko’s youth wing, takes a dim view of the competition.
"All of the Kremlin youth organizations in reality have two functions," Yashin says. "The first is to demonstrate massive youth support for the president and the acting parties of power. The second is the organization of mass programs meant to prevent a Ukraine-style 'Orange' scenario from unfolding in our country."
According to Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky, the massive scale of this year's summer retreats -- the Nashi camp has more than tripled in size since 2005 -- is a clear response to the political season ahead.
Still, for all the resources and attention, he says, many of those on retreat are thinking more about personal goals than political ones.
"For the leaders, these movements to a large degree are nothing more than a parceling out of money -- from the state, from the budget, and especially from prominent businessmen acting at the behest of the presidential administration," Pribylovsky says.
Those material concerns are shared by many youth group members as well, he adds. "The participants aren't taking on any ideology. For them it's an instrument for a career."
2008 And Beyond
The priorities of the Kremlin and the youth groups it supports may not always converge, but for now they operate in comfortable parallel. As Nashi and other groups gain in number and experience, however, that delicate balance may change.
"These games may ultimately create problems for the powers that be," says Yashin of the Yabloko youth group. "These kids are being promised they're set to become the future political elite. In reality, it's perfectly clear that the current elite has absolutely no intention of giving up their places to the people who are gathering at summer camps run by Kremlin youth groups."
Yashin adds: "There are quite a few of these young people. They've been taught to organize demonstrations. If a serious leader rises from their ranks, it's going to be a big problem for whoever's running the government after 2008."
Back at Lake Seliger, activists like Aliana, a young woman from Volgograd, are using the organizational savvy they're picking up at the Nashi camp to fight for concerns they personally hold dear.
Aliana, standing under a sign that reads "A City Without Orphanages," says she wants to create a social-support network for families that will help keep more children at home and out of child-care institutions.
And that's just part of Aliana's plan for tackling one of Putin’s pet concerns -- Russia's demographic crisis.
"I want to adopt," she says. "I'll definitely adopt a child from an orphanage. But I also want to have three of my own. It all depends on what the future will be like."
Is There Life After Putin?
Other camp participants are more bullish on the future. One, Mikhail, credits Putin with establishing a sense of stability in the country. Whoever comes next, he says, will only pick up where Putin left off.
And who is likely to get his vote? The man Mikhail considers the next best thing to Putin himself -- First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. "He's an honest person, and someone who holds the same moral values that Putin has already instilled in the minds of many Russians."
"People are going to make a hero out of Ivanov if he wins," Mikhail adds. "He should be even better than Putin. People are already thinking this way."
Moscow Mayor's Power On The Wane As He Enters Fifth Term
Luzhkov, who was sworn in for another four years in office on July 6, is indeed a divisive figure. While many Muscovites credit him with transforming the city into a gleaming, bustling capital, others accuse him of tearing down historic buildings and allowing his cronies to replace them with brash skyscrapers and casinos.
But few doubt his conviction that what he is doing is right, as evidenced by his address to the Moscow City Duma before his nomination by the president was approved.
"I consider the election for the high position of mayor of the capital as a tool to achieve the goals of development that Moscow and Muscovites need," Luzhkov said on June 27. "We are confident we will achieve these goals."
Sergei Mitrokhin, a member of the Moscow city legislature, lists some of the mayoral attributes President Putin may have considered before proposing Luzhkov for another term.
"Without a doubt, Luzhkov has a strong side to him, most Muscovites like him a lot. He's what's known as a 'people's mayor', and you can't argue with that," Mitrokhin said. "And all the shortfalls, all the negative things that have happened during his tenure, which you cannot in any way ignore, are obscured by this 'friendliness,' by this closeness to the people. I, for example, supported his appointment, because I thought that any other candidate that the Kremlin might have put forward would have been much worse than Luzhkov."
Under Luzhkov, who has served as mayor since 1992, pensioners travel free on public transport. Potholes have been filled. He oversaw the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Soviet officials had blown up and replaced with an open-air swimming pool. And he employs an army of workers to keep the streets icicle-free in winter and to plant banks of flowers, often spelling out patriotic slogans, in the summer.
"His greatest achievement is that Moscow managed to emerge from the Yeltsin reforms -- and the Putin reforms -- unscathed," Mitrokhin said. "Moscow today enjoys a high level of social welfare. That's in the sphere of communal maintenance and repairs; in Moscow people still receive support for communal services. And as for subsidies -- Moscow still retains all of these without the help of federal authorities, even as Putin is beginning to restrict these subsidies across the country."
But others blame Luzhkov for bad traffic and chronic pollution.
"The traffic jams are very huge, the public transportation doesn't give you a chance to get anywhere either. The ecology is bad. The prices are too high. The work of the police is far from being ideal," said Aleksandr Lebedev, a member of parliament who ran for mayor against Luzhkov in 2003. "There's lots of gambling all around which is, alongside the business of construction, the best beloved business of the Moscow bureaucracy. And so the Moscow bureaucracy is a big business clan, rather than people responsible for making our life better."
Whatever the views on Luzhkov's record, his fifth term marks a watershed. Before, he has been elected by a popular vote, giving him a massive power base of his own. Now though, direct elections for regional leaders have been abandoned. Luzhkov -- once one of Russia's most powerful figures -- is now effectively a Kremlin appointee whose approval was rubber-stamped by the city parliament. Putin's criticism at the inauguration ceremony appeared designed to remind Luzhkov who was the boss.
Lebedev says Luzhkov was only kept in his job because the Kremlin needs him to secure votes for its candidates in this December's parliamentary elections and presidential election March. Once that is done, the long-serving mayor will probably be encouraged to retire.
"There is a Russian proverb: they don't change horses when they cross a river," Lebedev said. "And they (the Kremlin), I think, are still of the opinion that Luzhkov controls some of the votes, that he has some support, which has yet to be checked in December."
Time Is Coming
Mitrokhin went further, saying: "I think Luzhkov is too influential a figure to get rid of just like that. They (the Kremlin) want someone new to be mayor, they want someone to take charge of the city. A lot of people in the Kremlin are clearly unhappy that Luzhkov's clan is in charge of Moscow. But moving him would be very dangerous, because he's very popular with most Muscovites. And so moving him before the parliamentary elections and particularly the presidential election would be rather risky for the Kremlin."
Many observers predict that once Luzhkov's usefulness to the Kremlin has run its course, he will step down to take up a post in the federal government. But what is clear, they say, is that the power wielded by the man once known as Moscow's 'tsar' is gradually coming to an end.
Craze For Air-Brushed Cars Hits The Streets Of Russia
To make their automobiles really stand out, they are having them spray-painted -- with designs ranging from sharks and tigers to scenes from their favorite movies.
Wearing scruffy overalls and a pair of goggles, a Moscow artist applies the finishing touches to a baby crocodile emerging from its shell on the trunk of a Lexus.
The roof of the car has been transformed into a mother crocodile guarding her eggs. Every centimeter of the car has been custom painted in loving detail.
It is the work of Ilnur Mansurov, a man considered to be a master of the art of auto airbrushing.
"Of course it's art. It's work -- when you spend a lot of time on something, you use your experience, your talent. It's just that's it's technical -- it's a more technical process when you are working on cars," Mansurov says. "I'm happy that so many people see my work, that the cars themselves drive around town like an exhibition, and people are always seeing my work."
Airbrushing, or aerography, as Mansurov prefers to call it, is big business in Moscow. Ten years ago, the most ubiquitous cars on the capital's streets were Russian-built Ladas and Volgas. Today, Muscovites prefer to drive foreign cars and you're less likely to see a rusty Zaporozhets at the traffic light than a line of shiny Audis and BMWs.
The average wage in Russia remains at around just $5,000 a year. But Russia's rich are astoundingly rich and, Mansurov says, they aren't afraid to spend their money.
"There are lot of people who have earned money quickly. They don't have the sort of conservatism that they have in, say, Great Britain," Mansurov says. "I doubt very much they would paint anything onto a Rolls Royce -- even Big Ben! But here, they're ready to do that. For them their cars are their hobby, their joy, their free time. Maybe part of it is that people remember how it used to be, life was difficult, dull back then. Now, if they've got the opportunity, they try to live life to the full."
Mansurov's creations don't come cheap. For $1,500 you can get your hood painted, for $3,000 he'll do one side of the car. But if you want the entire vehicle transformed from a modest, say, Chrysler PT Cruiser, into one of the scenes from "Pirates of the Caribbean," that will set you back upward of $15,000.
A closer look at Mansurov's work (courtesy photo)Mansurov is discreet about his clients. He says many of the cars he has painted belong to pop stars and actors and, possibly, some politicians. But he does let slip that the governor of a region to the south of Moscow recently had his Hummer chauffer-driven to Ilnur's studio, where it was painted with a sunset over the ocean, with flapping seagulls on the roof.
In addition to cars, he has applied his airbrush to two private jets and a yacht.
"And I did a big plane, a Yak-42, which has a height of seven meters. That was hard work because I had to keep running up and down four flights of stairs, dragging my equipment with me," Mansurov says. "On the tail I painted flying geese against the backdrop of a setting sun."
New Direction For Cars
On the other side of Moscow, Vadim Nikulin and Yury Tsarkov run the 4Friends airbrushing studio. They charge a little less than Mansurov -- an entire car costs just $5,000 to spray -- and they specialize in cartoon characters and science fiction. Tsarkov remembers some of the most difficult designs he's been asked to paint.
"We had one client with a Subaru who wanted a robot smashing its way out of the hood," Tsarkov says. "He was very demanding. But after we'd finished, the owner of the car jumped for joy and even left the artist extra money for his work and took him out for a round of drinks."
One of 4Friends' clients is Yaroslav, an insurance salesman, who is having his car spray-painted with smoke and flames.
Airbrushing cars "is a new direction for us," Yaroslav says. "It's as though people want to stand out in the crowd. Yes [sighs], maybe it's a sort of Russian mentality -- to have something that's bigger and better than anyone else's."