Russia: Beslan – Anger and revulsion at huge loss of life

Anger and revulsion at huge loss of life

The bloody end to the school hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia, angered, sickened and shocked people around the world. Officially, more than 340 died, and the figure is expected to rise substantially. Many hundreds are injured or unaccounted for. The grim television pictures of the bodies of charred children, and of mass, makeshift funerals and grieving relatives, has horrified and stunned the world.

The 1 September brutal assault by terrorists on the school, and their barbaric treatment of hostages – including children and elderly women – underscores the completely reactionary character of the Chechen separatist and Islamic group that carried out the atrocity.

Survivors tell how they were refused food and water and that children were forced to eat flowers (brought to celebrate the first day of the new school year) and to drink their own urine. Explosives were wired up above the heads of hostages and detonated, with terrible consequences.

In turn, Russian armed forces – chaotic and brutalised by conflict – responded in a manner that was certain to contribute to large-scale deaths. Within hours of the start of the siege, tanks surrounded the school. Yet two days later, at the time of the terrible denouement, the authorities had still not brought ambulances outside the school buildings. One officer justified this inaction by claiming the sight of ambulances near the school would ‘provoke’ the hostage takers.

There is even speculation that the Russian troops may have stormed the school, initiating the final bloody end.

The root causes of the latest atrocity reside in the decade-long Chechen war, and, more generally, in the national conflicts that have arisen in the former Soviet republics following the disastrous restoration of capitalism.

Successive Russian governments have murdered and terrorised the people of Chechnya and destroyed most of the cities and towns. It is estimated that over 40,000 children have been killed by Russian forces, although those horrors were hardly ever shown on television or condemned by Putin’s Western allies. According to the Russian Human Rights organisation, ‘Memorial’, about one quarter of the Chechen population – around 250,000 people – has died at the hands of the Russian army.

The vast majority of Chechens live in extreme poverty. 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."

Kidnappings of Chechens by Russian forces are statistically (per capita) at the same level as during the height of the Stalinist terror, says Memorial. Young men are routinely tortured to death and captives murdered by explosives.

‘International terrorism’?

Putin has tried to ‘internationalise’ the conflict, by declaring that the brutal Russian occupation of Chechnya is part of the so-called "war against international terrorism". Last week, Russian officials succeeded in getting the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the siege. At the same time, Putin declares the Chechen conflict is an "internal matter". He wants Western backing, but no interference, as Russian forces carry out even more vicious attacks in Chechnya.

In a national TV address, Putin ominously said he would bring the Caucuses ‘under control’ and tighten security. He was also forced to concede that corruption in the security forces and a lack of "professionalism" had contributed towards the bloody outcome. Some correspondents have even suggested that the corruption of local officials allowed explosives to be smuggled into the school before the start of the siege.

Blair and Bush have wasted no time in trying to use the terrible Beslan events to their advantage; "Russia’s September 11th", is used to justify the endless "war on terror" and the clampdown on democratic, civil and human rights. No doubt, both leaders hope this will aid their re-election chances.

However, in his address to the nation on Saturday night, Putin appeared to widen the forces he blamed for attacking Russians, to include other countries: "Today we are living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge great country…we have managed to preserve the nucleus of that giant, the Soviet Union and called the new country the Russian Federation. Some want to tear off a great chunk of our country. Others help them do it because they think that Russia, as one of the great nuclear powers of the world is still a treat that has to be eliminated."

Undoubtedly, there is widespread anger amongst working people in Russia at the hostage takers. This poses a real danger of increased ethnic tensions and conflict in Moscow and other Russian cities which will be directed not just against Chechens but all Caucasians, including Ossetians. The cry for harsher measures against terrorism can get an echo, in Russia and the West. However, there is also widespread despair amongst Russians, with many blaming Putin for failing to resolve the Chechen conflict, as he promised to do years ago. This is compounded by the authorities’ mishandling of the siege during and afterwards. The emergency services on the ground were hopelessly inadequate. Officials’ incompetence means that victims’ relatives have been prevented from identifying bodies. Many Russians angrily recall the ineptitude of the powers during previous disasters, such as the death of many Russian sailors when a navy submarine sank four years ago. On the first day of the Beslan siege, the authorities said there were 120-150 hostages. The next day, when released hostages said there were over 1,000 people held captive, the government maintained the figure was no more than 345. Finally, in the face of huge numbers of deaths, officials have had to acknowledge that over 1,181 people were caught up in the school siege.

Six months after easily winning presidential elections, Putin is facing direct criticism over a wave of terrorism that has cost over 500 lives in two weeks. Newspapers and some media commentators said the government "failed to protect citizens" or to be honest about the roots of terrorism in the long war in Chechnya. However, the government’s influence over the media remains strong. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Izvestia, Raf Shakirov, announced his forced resignation after he published a front page photo last Saturday that showed a man carrying a wounded child in Beslan.

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, the last two weeks saw 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.

The Russian president’s attempts to crush the insurgents by repression and bribery have failed. In October 2003, a pro-Moscow Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was ‘elected’. Putin aimed to rule Chechnya through this brutal stooge and Russian officials boasted that the separatists were deeply divided and nearly defeated. However, on 9 May, this year, Kadyrov was assassinated by a bomb blast.

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.

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 warlords and fundamentalist Islamic groups to fill the vacuum in Chechnya, although Putin undoubtedly exaggerates the role of "Arab" and other foreign Islamic fighters.

The new generation of Chechen insurgents, who believe they are fighting a "Jihad", act out of complete desperation, after experiencing years of extreme repression, and often witnessing the death of husbands, brothers, sons and other family members and friends at the hands of Russian forces. Several of the recent terror attacks have been carried out by the so-called ‘Black Widows’ – i.e. Chechen women that have had family members killed by Russian troops.

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. Thirteen years ago, North Ossetia (mainly Orthodox Christian) went to war with neighbouring Ingushetia (mainly Muslim). Furthermore, Russian forces have recently conducted "anti-terrorist" operations in Ingushetia, where they believe separatists have gained support. Only weeks ago, Georgia and South Ossetia were on the verge of war.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has attempted to dominate small nations to its south, provoking instability across the north and south Caucusus. Russia bitterly opposes independence for Chechnya, while actively supporting secessionists in areas like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two contested provinces in Georgia.

This imperialist meddling is causing all sorts of contradictions and conflicts. The Moscow-supported Abkhaz revolt, in 1992, was supported by armed volunteers from Chechnya. Later, Chechens returned home and began fighting for independence. One of these was Shamil Basayev, now a leader of ‘The Second Group of Salakin Riadus Shakhidi’, a Chechen Islamic group which Russian officials last week blamed for the Beslan seige.

Arms are awash across the Caucasus, many of which originate from Russian forces, and circulate among militias. 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’ or wider regional conflict erupting. Putin’s promise in Saturday’s TV address to establish a new security force to control the North Caucuses will only deepen the conflicts in the region.

No peace, no stability

Although the government and pro-Putin Russian media fan 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.

Putin desperately resists Chechen autonomy, let alone independence. Important regional natural resources and supply lines, and other geo-strategic considerations, means that the capitalist elite in Russia will forcibly act to stop genuine self-determination for Chechnya.

Only a couple of weeks ago, ‘elections’ in Chechnya put in place as President, Alu Alkhanov, the latest pro-Moscow stooge. Western leaders, like France’s President Chirac and Germany’s Chancellor Schroeder, may back the result, but the sham elections did not fool the majority of Chechens.

Earlier this summer, Putin’s rule was also coming under renewed pressure from working people in Russia. The Kremlin is increasing its authoritarian rule and introduced widely hated 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.

Underlining the reactionary and counter productive character of terrorism, the bloody events in Beslan may, for a short period, deflect anger over social and class issues. However, ongoing conflict 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 for the Chechen people and an end to Russian occupation of the country; for a socialist Chechnya as part of a socialist confederation of the region, on a voluntary and equal basis. A socialist programme would include winning over the rank and file of the mainly conscript Russian soldiers, who face appalling conditions and are poorly paid.

Socialists reject the new capitalist rulers of Russia, the hypocritical Western powers, the Chechen stooge regime and also the Chechen warlords and reactionary Islamic opposition.

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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September 2004