THE HOSTAGE takers who seized 1,200 children, parents and teachers in Beslan reached a new level of barbarism.
Young children were denied food and water. Many were shot by the hostage takers, even before the bloody mayhem which ended the siege. At least 335 died, and many more are still ‘missing’. The traumatic siege and the mass funerals have had a devastating impact on this small town.
Socialists utterly condemn the inhuman tactics used by the hostage takers, members of an Islamist Chechen nationalist group led by the warlord, Shamil Basayev. Such methods will not advance the cause of the Chechen people, who have been fighting a long and bitter resistance against military repression by the Russian state.
The angry reaction to the school killings, both in Russia and internationally, will allow Putin to take even stronger powers to ‘combat terrorism’. The autocratic Putin will crack down even harder on separatist movements and further curtail democratic rights throughout Russia.
Internationally, horror at the Beslan events could, at least temporarily, strengthen Bush and Blair in their policy of international military aggression and pruning of democratic rights. Bush will no doubt regard the Beslan events as a gift for his re-election campaign, in which he is playing up his role as ‘commander in chief’ in the ‘war on terrorism’.
Putin was quick to blame the siege on ‘international terrorism’ and ‘al-Qa’ida’. His security chiefs claim that there were at least ten Arab fighters among the dead hostage-takers, but so far they have produced no evidence of this. By referring to ‘international terrorism’ Putin was attempting to divert attention from the long, brutal war in Chechnya.
While nothing can justify the hostage-takers’ savage tactics, especially their inhuman targeting of ‘soft targets’ like young children, their desperate tactics arise from the barbarous Russian military repression in Chechnya.
One of the Chechen women suicide bombers, a so-called ‘black widow’, told a hostage: "Russian soldiers are killing our children in Chechnya, so we are here to kill yours." Another said: "My whole family was killed. I have buried all my children. I live in the forest. I have nowhere to go and nothing to live for."
There is some evidence that some of the young women suicide bombers have been pressed into service. In general, however, it is Putin’s brutal methods in Chechnya, his refusal even to concede limited autonomy, which has swelled the ranks of the Islamist terrorist groups. They can offer no way out, but they reflect the anger and despair of many Chechens, who are prepared to fight to the death rather than to accept continued Russian domination.
Series of attacks
Just before the Beslan siege started, two Russian airliners crashed, almost certainly brought down by Chechen suicide bombers. At the same time, a bomb exploded on the Moscow underground. These outrages, the latest of a whole series of attacks, have strengthened public support for further state clampdown on terrorism. Naturally, people want protection against terrorist attacks.
Yet it is the ‘strong state’ that Putin presides over which has provoked national insurgencies and terrorism. Putin rules in alliance with a new ruling class of gangster capitalists, dominated by the big oil and gas oligarchs. He has worked to strengthen the state machine, relying heavily on the security services.
Putin champions a new form of Russian imperialism, trying to restore power and influence that was undermined when the former multinational Stalinist state, the Soviet Union, collapsed after 1989. Recently, he accused Russia’s enemies of trying to "cut a juicy piece of our pie", by encouraging separatist movements in areas like the Caucasus.
Putin has totally opposed independence, or even limited autonomy, for Chechnya or other national entities. Let one go, he thinks, and there will be an avalanche of demands for autonomy or separation.
The Caucasus was colonised by the tsars in the early part of the 19th century for their rich agricultural resources. Now it is of growing importance for oil and gas, and especially the important gas pipelines running to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. After Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, fought the 1994-97 war in Chechnya, Putin launched a second war in August 1999.
But Putin has played a devious game of divide and rule in the Caucasus. While implacably imposing independence for territories like Chechnya, he has cynically supported secessionist movements in regions like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, mainly to foment trouble for the independent regime in Georgia, which Putin wants to undermine.
In the early 1990s, the Russian security services themselves used Shamil Basayef, currently their main enemy in Chechnya, to help break Abkhazia away from the neighbouring and newly independent Georgia.
Moreover, the military forces that the Russian state deploys in the Caucasus are notoriously corrupt. "The conflict has also offered opportunities for personal enrichment [for the military] at every level, from checkpoint bribes and the illegal sale of arms to control over local oil production." (Financial Times, 6 September) There is a black market in arms, including ground-to-air missiles, which gives many guerrilla groups access to weapons.
Putin also faces a growing economic and social crisis within Russia itself. He is undoubtedly using the threat of a ‘terrorist war on Russia’ to divert attention from rising discontent. The return to market capitalism has been a disaster for the majority of Russians. Poverty and inequality have soared. Putin’s latest move is to cut state spending on health services, education, nurseries and pensions. No wonder he wants a diversion.
Editorial from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales