North Ossetia: School siege is latest horror of Chechen conflict

Putin fails to bring ‘peace and security’ to Chechens or Russians

In a horrific development of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, heavily armed insurgents seized a school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, on Wednesday, 1 September, forcing children, parents and teachers into a gymnastics hall. The exact number of hostages remains unclear – anywhere between 130 and 400. At the time of writing, it is reported that around 30 women and children have been freed by the armed group. Large numbers of heavily armed Russian troops and police are encamped outside the school buildings.

It is reported that around a dozen armed men and women stormed the Middle School No. 1 in the town of Beslan, not far from Chechnya on Russia’s border with Georgia. The assault took place as the school celebrated the ‘Day of Knowledge’, which is the traditional day of festivities throughout Russia on the first day of the new school year. Around 12 civilians are reported to have been killed during the assault on the school.

It is widely believed that a group linked to the Chechen conflict is behind the storming. If so, this once again underscores the reactionary character of the Islamic armed opposition in Chechnya. The group reported to be behind the attack, called the ‘Second Group of Salakin Riadus Shakhidi’, is linked to the rebel commander Shamil Basayev. In 1995, Basayev’s forces took over a hospital in Budyonnovsk, a town near Chechnya in the Stavropol region, during the first Chechen war. Over 1,000 people were held hostage and around 140 people died in fighting.

Undoubtedly, working people around the world will empathise with the terror-stricken parents and families of those taken hostage. The siege is a product of the decade-long barbarous conflict in Chechnya. Successive Russian governments have murdered and terrorised the people of Chechnya and destroyed most of the cities and towns. The country is denied self-determination by the brutal occupation of the Russian army, and by pro-Moscow Chechen militias and a puppet regime. According to a report by Amnesty International, "Russian security forces continue to enjoy almost total impunity from serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Chechnya."

Putin under huge pressure

According to President Vladamir Putin’s adviser on Chechen affairs, Alsanbek Alakhanov, the hostage takers are demanding a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of rebels jailed after a series of armed attacks in another Russian republic, Ingushetia, in June, which killed nearly 100 police officials.

North Ossetia’s Interior Minister, Kazbek Dzantinyev, told reporters that the school hostage takers threatened to blow the school up if the Russian police attempted to storm the building and that they would kill 50 children for each rebel killed.

The school siege crisis has forced Putin, for the second time in eight days, to disrupt his holidays and to return to Moscow. Immediately, Putin tried to ‘internationalise’ the conflict, by declaring that the brutal Russian occupation of Chechnya is part of the so-called ‘war’ against "international terrorism". Russian officials went to the UN Security Council with a resolution condemning the siege; an out of character step by the Putin government, given that it usually likes to portray the Chechen conflict as an "internal matter".

Putin recently repeated that he will never negotiate with terrorists or Chechen separatists, who have been fighting Russian forces in the republic almost continually since 1994. This hard-line attitude has led to Russian forces storming previous hostage-taking situations, with a large loss of life. But the latest crisis, with the sickening complication of involving children, is putting Putin’s much vaunted ‘hard man’ position under enormous pressure. On the second day of the Beslan school hostage crisis, officials "ruled out using force to end the siege in North Ossetia," according to the BBC online news (02/09/04). The head of the Russian security service in North Ossetia said there was "no question" of opting for force at the moment. Putin is also at pains to point out that the "hostages’ safety was paramount". The Russian President knows he treads a fine line. While there is undoubtedly anger amongst working people in Russia at the hostage takers, many will also blame Putin for failing to resolve the Chechen conflict, as he promised years ago. If scores of children are killed or injured in fighting, the Putin government could come under huge pressure and face angry protests.

Putin re-ignited the conflict in Chechnya to boost his credentials as a "firm leader" prior to becoming President of Russia. But the conflict continues to dog his rule. Despite the Russian President’s claim that things are "getting better" in Chechnya, this last week has seen two planes and a metro station in Moscow attacked, with the loss of around 100 lives. In 2002, hundreds of theatre goers in Moscow died after a heavy handed assault by Russian ‘special forces’ to "free" hostages held by Chechen rebels.

Putin’s attempts to crush the insurgents by repression and bribery have failed. In October 2003, a pro-Moscow president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was ‘elected’. The Chechen people were war weary after ten years of Russian bombing and occupation. Putin aimed to rule Chechnya through his brutal stooge Kadyrov and his officials boasted that the separatists were deeply divided and nearly defeated. However, on 9 May, this year, Kadyrov was assassinated by a bomb blast, in the Chechen capital, Grozny, during ‘VE Day’ celebrations.

Kadyrov’s policy of bribing insurgents to join his state forces led to the security forces becoming influenced by separatist sympathisers. Furthermore, the insurgents have split, with many seeking an alliance with Islamic groups.

West ignores abuses

After 9/11, the US and Western countries ignored the continual human rights abuses and mass murders carried out by Russian forces in Chechnya, as they sought a new alliance with Putin in the ‘fight against terror’. Furthermore, for the US and other Western countries, Russia’s importance as a giant exporter of oil and gas has grown in recent years. (Russia is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and the second largest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia).

Subsequently, the exiled Chechen separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who was previously termed a ‘moderate’, was disowned by the Western powers. But this left the way open for hard-line, Islamic groups to fill the vacuum in Chechnya. Nick Paton Walsh, writing for the London-based ‘Guardian’ newspaper, commented (2 September 2004) that the Chechen conflict now involves foreign Islamic fighters and that this represents the "…slow internationalisation of the conflict". He goes on to say, "The irony is that, while the Chechen conflict may not have started as a struggle involving Islamic fighters, it is one now". The Islambouli Brigades, who claimed responsibility for the recent plane bombings in Russia, say they aim to "punish infidel Russia".

The new generation of men and women insurgents, who believe they are fighting a "Jihad", act out of complete desperation, after experiencing years of repression, and often witnessing the death of husbands, brothers, sons and other family members and friends at the hands of Russian forces. Following the orders of Yeltsin and then Putin, the actions of brutalised Russian soldiers have succeeded in brutalising a whole generation of Chechens. The scale of the problem facing Putin is huge. The new breed of insurgents feels that they have literally nothing to lose. Their ability to strike is aided by the enormous levels of corruption in Russian society; Chechen fighters have previously made their way through Russian army checkpoints by simply paying a bribe!

The increasing complication of the Chechen conflict is compounded by the fragile ethnic tensions in the North Ossetia region, where the present school hostage stand-off is taking place. Thirteen years ago, North Ossetia went to war with neighbouring Ingushetia. Furthermore, Russian forces have recently conducted "anti-terrorist" operations in Ingushetia, where they believe separatists have gained support.

The recent upsurge of Chechen-linked violence in Russia, in the Caucasus and, of course, in Chechnya, indicates the danger of a new ‘third Chechen war’ erupting, which this time could include the Caucuses.

The previous Russian President, Boris Yelstin, failed to suppress Chechen demands for self-determination by military action, between 1994 and 1996. Three years later, Putin plunged the country into another war and declared "victory" in 2000 and again in 2002. Now Putin faces a desperate situation – in the immediate term concerning the school crisis but also in the longer term, concerning the future of Chechnya. He previously refused to allow negotiations with rebels, but yet his use of force has clearly failed. Neither will political confidence-tricks succeed. The majority of Chechens will not be fooled by last week’s fixed ‘elections’ which put in place as President, Alu Alkhanov, the latest pro-Moscow stooge, despite Western leaders like France’s President Chirac and Germany’s Chancellor Schroeder backing the sham elections.

The people of Chechnya have long suffered under foreign occupation. Tsar Nicholas the First invaded the country during the 1830s. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, allowed nations formerly oppressed under Tsarism the right to self-determination, including succession, if they so wished. In the early days of the Revolution, the various republics opted to remain in the Soviet Union. However, the Stalinist counter revolution saw the development of Great Russian Chauvinism and national oppression. Under Stalin, practically the entire Chechen population were deported in 1944.

In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the president of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared independence. Yelstin invaded Chechnya in 1994 and around 100,000 lives were lost in the ensuing conflict. Yeltsin was forced into signing a formal peace treaty in 1997, which left the future of Chechnya unresolved. The country – war-torn and impoverished – descended into chaos. The power of warlords grew and also that of Islamic fighters. In 2000, Putin re-imposed direct rule from Moscow, re-igniting years of conflict, which have led up to the horrific school siege in Beslan.

Strongman Putin?

Putin is not able to play his ‘strongman’ card as before. Although the government and pro-Putin Russian media fans the fires of racism to keep anti-Chechen feelings high amongst Russians, the continuing Chechen conflict shows that Putin cannot deliver ‘security’ or ‘peace’ in Chechnya or anywhere in Russia. The encroaching authoritarianism of the Kremlin is provoking opposition in Russia. Even more hated are the recent cuts in social benefits, including housing subsidies, pensions, public transport and prescriptions. The President’s boast that he would double Russia’s GDP sounds increasingly hollow to the country’s impoverished millions. Even the Russian Finance Minister, Aleksei Kudrin, declared recently that ‘economic reforms’ have been "screwed up".

Ongoing conflict and terrorism, and the deep economic and social problems in Russia, will send the working people of Russia on a collision course with the Putin regime and the ruling class. To achieve a fundamental change to their lives, the Russian working class will have to re-embrace the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky – the ideas of genuine Marxism. A socialist society, with an economy under the democratic control and planning of the working class, is the only way to lift the majority of people out of poverty, joblessness, low pay, exploitation and poor working conditions.

A socialist programme also includes allowing the right of oppressed nations to decide their own future. This means the Russian workers’ movement supporting self-determination to the Chechen people and an end to Russian occupation of the country. A socialist programme would include winning over the rank and file of the Russian soldiers, who face appalling conditions and are poorly paid.

A socialist programme rejects the new capitalist rulers of Russia, the Chechen stooge regime and also the Chechen warlords and reactionary Islamic opposition. It is reported that the majority of Chechens oppose extreme Islam and are fed up with decades of violence. Only a united mass movement of Chechen workers and poor, linked to the working class of the region, can overcome national, ethnic and religious differences and deliver the aspirations of the Chechen people – successfully winning national rights and social and economic liberation.

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