Russia: Putin’s hostage-takers policy leaves hundreds dead

President Putin’s ’war against terror’ has brought the very terror to Moscow itself. Last week, a group of 50 heavily armed Chechens drove through Moscow in two minibuses and seized a theatre in the middle of a popular musical show. 7-800 people in the theatre were held as hostages.

When shots were fired in the early hours of Saturday morning, initially, according to the authorities, by the Chechens’ killing hostages, armed Russian special forces stormed the theatre, using some form of "special substance" – in other words gas, which not only knocked out and killed a number of the terrorists but, at the time of writing, also claimed the lives of 120 of the hostages. Hundreds of others are still in hospital suffering from breathing problems, loss of memory and of course psychological shock. Now it has been admitted that the Chechens had not been shooting hostages.

Putin was quick to claim this as another attack by the international terror network. He quickly gained carte blanche support from Western leaders for his actions, particularly from Bush and Blair. But of course the reality is more complex. The hostage takers from Chechnya were clearly linked to one of the more radical groups and the leaders had close links to the Wabbite Islamic sect. But many of them were young women, one as young as 16, including several widows of Chechens who had been killed by Russian troops in the two recent wars. Their fundamentalism had a particular ’Russian tinge’ – hostages reported seeing the Chechens drinking.

Atrocities in Chechnya

The demands of the Chechens were blunt – end the war in Chechnya. Those world leaders who rushed to support Putin forget that it is the war in Chechnya, cynically launched at the end of Yeltsin’s rule to ensure Putin’s election as President, which has caused the death of tens of thousands of Chechens and Russian soldiers. The world has turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Russian troops in Chechnya, which include the shooting without trial of any males in the fighting age group and the rape and murder of women. It is the very brutality of Putin’s war that has caused the desperation of the Chechens to spill over into such horrific terror acts as this.

During the crisis, relatives of the hostages organized anti-war demonstrations, one in Red Square. The authorities refused to give permission for the rallies, threatening to use the police to break them up. Actually the rallies were organized at the behest of the hostage takers, who told the hostages to phone relatives and organize the demos. What is significant however is that the crisis has brought Chechnya back onto the political agenda. For the first time for a long while, there have been burning political discussions about the question with many Russian people saying it was time to stop the war.

Despite Putin’s almost tearful broadcast apologizing to the relatives of those that died, his representatives on the scene were widely viewed as inflexible and insensitive. Members of his administration usually responsible for crises such as this were noticeable by their absence from the scene leaving the negotiations in the hands of opposition politicians and actors from the theatre.

Worse was the behavior of the authorities after the storming. All the hostages were whisked off to hospital while the authorities refused point blank to admit that gas had been used. Doctors were left to treat the patients not knowing what they were dealing with and relatives were in many cases refused permission to visit. Officials underestimated the number of casualties, only to be contradicted by the Health Authorities, who by Sunday afternoon had upped the number of dead to 118 hostages and 50 Chechens, with at least 50 still in intensive care. Distressed relatives were left outside the hospitals in pouring rain for two days trying to seek information about missing people. There were many cases where a son or daughter had been located but a husband or wife was missing.

’Special substance’ kills hundreds

The real number of deaths caused by the use of this "special substance" will probably never be known. Now criticism is growing that such a gas could have been used. It is designed for wartimes, against young male and relatively healthy troops – not middle aged men and women or children. The use of the gas also exposes the lie of the super and former super powers such as Russia who are supposed to have banned the use of such weapons of mass destruction.

Could this siege have been ended peacefully? In 1995 the first Chechen war was eventually brought to an end after Chechens seized a hospital in Budyenovsk, in Southern Russia. The then Prime Minister Chernomyrdin negotiated on live television with the hostage takers agreeing to call a ceasefire and withdraw troops. The only hope for bringing this siege to a peaceful end would have been for the government to once again announce withdrawal of troops. But this would have been too big a blow to the prestige of Putin.

Capitalism creates conflict

After the first war, capitalism in Russia and of course in Chechnya was unable to solve any of the roots causes of this conflict. Money earmarked for reconstruction by the government was robbed by government officials, Chechens who had fought in the first war were left jobless and turned to banditry and kidnapping. Russian leaders again turned to military means to try and subdue the small mountain republic.

Clearly, alongside struggling to end this war, it is necessary to create a genuine political alternative capable of opposing Putin and capitalism itself, in other words, a workers’ party with a socialist programme capable of fighting for workers’ rights throughout Russia and of guaranteeing self-determination to Chechnya and any other republic that wishes it. Only then will it be possible to begin healing the wounds caused by the wars launched by the new capitalist Russia.

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October 2002