Russia: After Beslan Putin clamps down but provokes more opposition

Even before the final toll from the school siege in Russia is known, it is clear that over 335 have died. Although nearly 100 of the dead have not been identified, there are nearly 200 people still missing. And a large proportion of these are children.

This in-depth analysis looks at the aftermath of the Beslan school siege, which ended with the deaths of hundreds of people, including many children. It examines the authoritarian measures introduced by Putin in the wake of the Beslan events, the limits of his power, the situation in the Caucusus, and the socialist alternative to war, terrorism, poverty and unemployment.

After Beslan Putin clamps down but provokes more opposition

 But these statistics are only the tip of the iceberg. With a population of 35000, there can not be a family in the city of Beslan in Northern Ossetia, who has not lost a loved one and the horrific pictures beamed over the world of children being shot and escaping in terror has sickened not only the whole population of Russia but the whole world.

Just a couple of hours before the bloody finale, the authorities were still claiming that there were only 350 hostages, despite the claims of relatives that there were over a thousand. Now it is accepted that there were 1200 adults and children holed up in the school. The officials in charge of the attempt to free the hostages managed not only to infuriate the relatives and friends desperately holding vigil outside the school, but it is also reported that they provoked the terrorists into more desperate action, as they believed they were not being taken seriously enough. Five days after the end of the siege, thousands gathered in the main square of Vladikavkaz, the capital of northern Ossetia demanding that those responsible for the disinformation and corruption be called to account. In order to divert the wrath of the crowd away from himself, the Republic’s President sacked his whole government.

But the North Ossetian government played a minor role. The siege and its aftermath have placed President Putin under huge pressure and could well prove to be the turning point in his fortunes. He has built his regime’s reputation on being the hard man, who could solve the problems of crime, corruption and terrorism. For nearly two years he has been claiming that the Chechen war is over and that stability as returned to the war torn republic. The horror of Beslan has not only shown his claims to be false but has demonstrated the dangers of the war spreading to the other republics in the region.

Trying to deny the connection between Beslan and Chechnya, the Russian authorities struggled to explain who had launched the siege. Whilst the whole of Russia expected that the hostage takers were Chechens, the Federal authorities claimed they were part of the "terrorist international". The United Nations Security Council was hastily convened to give credence to the idea that Russia was a victim of this international campaign.

To prevent the full truth from getting out independently minded reporters, such as Andrei Babitskii, were prevented from traveling to Beslan and another journalist claims she was given doped tea on the aircraft, when she attempted to fly down to Beslan. It is also reported that the manipulation of information by the regime undermined the attempts of negotiators. It was after they first witnessed the reports of the siege on television that the terrorists refused to give the hostages water and food. The hostages were forced to resort to eating the flowers that the children traditionally present to teachers on 1st September and even drinking their own urine.

Placard held by relatives outside school – it reads "Putin!!! Release our children!!! Implement the demands.

Opinion polls taken in the days after the siege indicate huge mistrust with the actions of the military and police forces, who tried to end the siege. Whilst publicly announcing that there was to be no attempt to end the siege by force, negotiations were left in the hands of local leaders and a doctor, who had been involved in the negotiations during the siege of the Moscow theatre. But the attempts to negotiate were overshadowed by the incompetent actions of the military commanders.

As was later admitted by a veteran of the Special Forces, the task set for the military was to annihilate the hostage-takers rather than release the hostages. So the school was surrounded by tanks. It immediately became clear that if shooting was to start, losses would inevitably be high. No attempt was made however, to arrange for ambulances to even be on stand by. In the first period after the siege broke down, the wounded had to be ferried to hospitals in private cars.

But despite the apparent emphasis on a military resolution, the military were caught unprepared when the fighting started. Special troops such as the Alpha squad, renowned for the attack on Moscow’s White House in 1993, were some miles away practicing to break the siege when events escalated out of control. Other troops around the school were left without maps of the building and flak jackets. The school was not even cordoned off. Many of the relatives who had gathered outside the school were therefore caught in the crossfire when the shooting started, but even worse, many of them were themselves armed and this was a major factor in pushing the whole situation out of control.

This happened when for some reason one of the bombs in the hall went off. Many hostages agree that it accidentally fell. Some of the hostages saw this as a chance to escape and started to run from the building. Shooting then began as the terrorists shot at those escaping and the military returned fire at the terrorists. Their leader spoke to the military commander by telephone calling for the shooting to cease but while the order to stop firing was given, the civilians who had joined in the shooting did not obey the order and continued firing. As a result the situation quickly escalated into complete chaos and over a thousand hostages found themselves caught in the cross fire of a two-hour gun battle.

The horrific brutality of the terrorists shocked the world. Their use of children as hostages was itself bad enough. They took some of the male hostages away at the beginning to execute. Young children were then stood on the window ledges as human shields in case the army tried to use snipers. Explosives and grenades were hung throughout the school ready for detonation if the school building was stormed. That a section of the Chechen people has been driven to such lengths is a condemnation of the policies followed by the Russian regime over the past fifteen years and also due to a longer history of national oppression.

History of Russian imperialist oppression

Chechnya first experienced Russian colonialism (and later imperialism) when Tsarism was expanding its influence through the Caucuses. Resistance from the Chechens under the leadership of Imam Shamil was fierce and held off the Tsarist armies for a hundred years before a temporary compromise was reached. The only period in which it can be said that the Chechens had any possibility of deciding their own fate was in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution in 1917. Then the Chechen and Ingushetian peoples organised an uprising in the rear of Deniken’s White Army, effectively assisting the Red Army’s advance in the Caucusus. They then actively participated in the creation of the Autonomous Mountain Republic. The Bolsheviks under Lenin’s guidance were extremely sensitive to the feelings of the smaller nationalities and ethnic groups, such as Chechnya.

Imam Shamil

The strangling of the Russian Revolution by the Stalinist bureaucracy with its Great Russian chauvinism saw the Chechens once again in the position of victim. Self-determination was denied and forced collectivization led to huge suffering with famine and repression throughout the Caucuses. The Chechen and Ingush peoples were deported en mass by Stalin during the Second World War to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

But matters only got worse with the advent of capitalist restoration and the former Stalinist bureaucratic elite decided to push through market reforms. Like many other nationalities in the former Soviet Union, the Chechens saw the collapse of the Stalinist system as a chance to gain their long fought for independence. Indeed, even Boris Yeltsin, on coming to power after the August 1991 coup attempt, told the Russian regions to "take as much sovereignty as you want". But, in November of the same year, the Chechens came out on the streets in mass protests to force the then Republican head and former Stalinist bureaucrat Zagaev to resign and declare independence. For many of the Russian leaders this was going too far and troops were sent to Grozny in an attempt to quell the uprising. The troops got no further than the city’s airport, with many forced to abandon their weapons to the new Chechen government, led by Zhokhur Dudayev.

An accommodation was, however, soon found with the new government. The early nineties was a period of crude gangster capitalism in the new bourgeois Russia, as former bureaucrats, speculators and mafia (often one and the same) expropriated state property. Chechnya’s neighbouring republic, Ingushetia, was made into an "off-shore zone" and the twin republics with Chechnya’s open borders became ideal places for the new super rich Russians to launder their ill-gained capital. The region became an undeclared war zone as the various clan leaders, with their friends in high places in Moscow, fought for control of the money flowing through the region.

The first Chechen war opened at the end of 1994 when the Russian ruling class aimed to consolidate a unified state and to regain control of the transport, oil, finance and tax channels through the republic. At a drunken party to celebrate General Grachev’s (the then Defense Minister) birthday, Yelstin decided to use tanks to take Chechnya back into the fold. A three year war ensued, in which Chechnya’s capital and other cities were raised to the ground.

The war was brutal. Drunken Russian conscripts were sent to Chechnya, with no proper training or weapons, to fight against a population that was already filled with hatred at Russia and was defending their homes. The war was a disaster for Russia. It demonstrated the complete incompetence of the military leadership, which was so corrupt it was not even able to maintain simple discipline. The Chechen side armed by buying weapons from the Russian officers and conscripts, often for a couple of bottles of vodka. Russia was forced into making a compromise and ending the war, when a section of the ruling elite came to realize it was unwinnable.

According to the human rights’ organisation, ‘Memorial’, over 50,000 civilians were killed in the first war – that is one in twenty of the original population. About 5000 Russian troops and between 2- 4,000 Chechen fighters were killed. Nearly half the population was forced to leave the republic, many of them to this day living in tented refugee camps in the neighbouring republics (Other human rights groups say the latest figures of dead from the two Chechen wars stands at around 250,000, according to human rights groups).

Shamil Basayev, who is now claiming responsibility for the Beslan school siege, won his reputation during the first Chechen war. But he has a history that predates that conflict. In August 1991, he led a group of Chechens to defend Boris Yeltsin in the White House. Later, Basayev then flew home to support the Chechen separatist leader, Dudayev. He originally fought on the side of the Russians in the early nineties in the war in Abkhazia against Georgia. As a war lord in Chechnya Basayev won notoriety after the 1995 siege of the Budyennovsk hospital.

Two weeks before Basayev’s attack in nnovsk, Russian troops had carried out another "cleansing", this time of Basayev’s home village of Vedeno. Aircraft bombed the houses killing eleven aunts and young cousins of Basayev. In response, Basayev stated: "Before I was not a supporter of that sort of action, to go and fight in Russia…But when we were thrown out of Vedeno and they had driven us into the corner with their very savage and cruel annihilation of villages, of women, children, old people, then we went." His response was to take a band of armed Chechens into Russia, aiming, he said, for Moscow.

They ran into resistance from the Russian police and army in Budyennovsk. After having attacked the city’s police station, they then retreated to the hospital, where they seized hundreds of hostages, who they used to negotiate safe passage back to Chechnya.

This was a turning point in the first war. The then Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, negotiated by telephone, on live television, with Basayev. After this it became only a matter of time before the Russian doves, led by Chernomyrdin, forced the end of the war. Although the official leadership of the Chechens, under Maskhadov, refused support for Basayev’s raid into Russia, many Chechens saw the action as the turning point that started the end of the first war.

Basayev originally modeled himself on Shamil, the leader of the Chechen liberation struggle against the Tsar. It is reported that, at this stage, Basayev decorated his home with images of Che Guevara who he liked to say he modelled himself on. Basayev called Guevara a ‘national liberation’ figure but Basayev has never associated himself with Latin American’s revolutionary socialist ideas. But as time went on he linked up with Islamic fundamentalists, particularly from the Wabbite sect (linked to the Saudi ruling family). Even today however, it appears the fundamentalism of the likes of Basayev is limited to the war lords and their immediate supporters. Chechnya itself remains a firmly Muslim country, which is historically based the largely secular form of the Sufi creed. Reports from Chechnya indicate that many people are war weary, oppose Russian army repression and are also repelled by the actions of the Islamic fundamentalists. But, at the same time, because of the appalling conditions in Chechnya, including poverty and oppression, sections of the population look towards the more stringent Sunni or Shi’ite forms of Islam, in the mistaken belief that fundamentalism represents a "way out."

General Dudayev was killed during the first war, when Russian special services intercepted the signal from his mobile phone and sent a missile to the spot he was hiding. In the elections that took place after the war Maskadov was elected President in 1997. Although a successful military commander, he was also seen as the moderate and most secular of the candidates. Basayev came second in the election and was appointed Prime Minister. For several years, Chechnya gained de-facto independence.

Grozny 1996!

But things did not improve dramatically for the Chechen people. Living standards continued to decline dramatically and the money sent by Moscow to compensate for the destruction caused during the war went into the pockets of the Russian bureaucrats and their Chechen counterparts. Youth unemployment was running almost at 100%. Young people either had to leave the republic and find jobs in Russia or if unable to leave, join up with the former war lords, who now were little more than bandits, drug runners and extortionists. Kidnapping of foreigners became a common means of earning a living.

The second war was launched in 1999. It is now widely accepted that the attack was intended to help Vladimir Putin, when Putin was prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, to gain a reputation as a firm figurehead, who could bring Russia out of the chaos and disorder that was typical at the end of Yeltsin’s rule. This image was carefully manufactured to help Putin’s ambitions to become president. There is significant and convincing evidence to suggest that a section of the Russian secret services had some involvement in the three bombings that destroyed huge blocks of flats in Moscow and Volgodonsk just before the start of the second war. These explosions were used by Yeltsin and Putin as the excuse to send in troops to Chechnya again.

Putin’s second Chechen war

The 2000 Presidential campaign was fought under the slogans, "Strong hand", "strengthening of the Russian state" and "dictatorship of the law". Against the background of fear and shock following the years of Yeltsin’s drunken capers, and with the lack of a working class party that was capable of mobilizing opposition in a socialist direction, Putin won the election with an overwhelming majority.

This 16 year old was amongst several youth who were badly wounded when Russian aircraft bombed his village. 8 young boys were killed in the attack.

The second war was to be fought by "professionals" as opposed to the untrained conscripts sacrificed in the first war. But this only made the attacks more brutal. The cleansing of villages – that is the wholesale arrest and then disappearance and shooting of all men of fighting age was common practice. Women were harassed and raped. One famous case concerned Elza Kungayeva, a 16 year old Chechen girl, who was repeatedly raped and then murdered by a Russian officer, Colonel Yuri Budanov. Due to a huge public outcry, he was tried for murder. A long string of senior officers came out to support this brave Russian "hero". The "best of Russians", he was called. He was sentenced to ten years in prison but just this week it was been announced that Putin is about to pardon him. Sections of the Russian military elite have campaigned hard for his release and it was reported that a flat and job are awaiting him in Moscow.

This provoked outrage and a large 5-6000 strong demo in Grozny, mainly of women and youth, in protest at the suggestion Budanov would be pardoned. The Chechen government seem to have played a role in organising the demo and one of the outspoken speakers was Kadyrov’s (the assassinated President) son.

 Budunov has now withdrawn his appeal for pardon, although it is quite likely some deal has been made over his release.

Over the two wars it is estimated that over 40,000 children have been killed in Chechnya. Amnesty International say that the Russian Army in Chechnya "absolutely and cynically breaches all possible human rights and international humanitarian laws in Chechnya", while Human Rights Watch has a page detailing "disappeared persons" on its website.

Despite ongoing hostilities, however, the Kremlin has been claiming, since 2002, that the war is over and that stability is returning to Chechnya. In rigged elections, surrounded by violence and treats, in October last year, the Kremlin-backed candidate, Akhmat Kadyrov, was elected President. In the late eighties, he established the first Islamic Institute in Chechnya and then joined the Chechen side in the first war in 1993. Like the other commanders he was little more than a warlord, establishing his own small army of loyal fighters. As one of the leaders of Islam in the republic (he was later elected Mufti of Chechnya) he declared jihad on the Russian army. Only at the beginning of the second war, which was started as part of the campaign to get Putin elected to the Kremlin, Kadyrov fell out with Maskhadov and the other warlords and ended up siding with the Kremlin.

According to Human Rights Watch, families living in this refugee camp in Ingushetia were refused food for three days at the end of last year in an attempt to force them home

Kadyrov ran a regime of terror within Chechnya, in which his former fighters ran protection rackets, and ensured that his political opponents kept their heads down. As the Moscow newspaper, Nezavisimaya, puts it: "His personal guard are no longer afraid of the federal troops, and behind their backs people call them ‘death squads’. It’s no secret that the other warlords are getting worried about the strengthening of the Kadyrov clan".

These incidents gave the lie to the claims by the Russian leadership that things had settled down in the republic under Kadyrov. Barely a day goes by without a bomb attack or a firefight either within the republic or in one of the nearby regions.

As a result, Chechen refugees currently living in other republics in tented towns are extremely reluctant to return. This is hardly surprising given the conditions in Grozny. One reporter recently described how a family living in the city survives. "When 14 year old Asya returns from school she ducks under a sign warning mines, steps through a broken doorway and climbs a dark staircase past empty apartments where wind blows through the shattered walls." Her mother complains that Asya has been losing her hair because of the tension of life in a war zone. Her younger brother has an eye ailment and her sister is going deaf from the constant sounds of explosions. One NGO reports that over 8,000 people have been killed by mines in the past 3 years.

Kadyrev kept his post just eight months before being assassinated in May of this year, becoming the third of Chechnya’s four post-Soviet Union-era Presidents to die a violent death. His successor, Alu Alkhanov, the former police chief in the republic, was elected just four days before the start of the school siege.

It is only by examining the context of the Beslan siege that the events themselves can be understood. Whilst the leaders of the hostage takers were vicious reactionaries, motivated by fundamentalist ideas and the need for jihad against the "infidel Russia", it now appears that others were caught up in events beyond their control and were press ganged into traveling to North Ossetia. Not only did some of the terrorists claim that they did not know that they were going to seize a school but, on the first day of the crisis, at least two of the hostage takers expressed their disgust at the seizure and were shot dead by their leaders.

When a hostage asked one of the armed women holding them, "Why are you putting our children in deadly danger?" she replied, "When they were killing my children, why did you not ask the same?"

It has become a feature of terrorism in Russia that usually young women have carried out most suicide bombings. The theatre siege, two bombs last summer in Moscow, the two bombs in Moscow in the run up to the school siege and the airliner attacks all seem to have been the responsibility of these so called "black-widows". These desperate women, whose children and husbands were killed by Russian troops, are motivated by the desire for revenge and, it is suggested, are often drugged and brain-washed by the leaders of the terrorist groups to carry out the missions they have been selected for. The suffering of these women in no way justifies the attacks they undertake. At the same time, it is necessary to look at the causes of terrorism, which grew out of the barbaric actions of the Russian state in Chechnya. Another key reason for the continuing conflict is that there is no other social force, either in Chechnya or Russia, that is organized and offering any other way out of the impasse that currently grips the region – as a result the "black widows" fall into the grips of the reactionary fundamentalists. There is no mass working class, socialist alternative to the horrors of the Chechen conflict and terrorism.

Western powers and Chechnya

One other reason why the situation in Chechnya has become so desperate has been the response from the Western powers. With the near trebling of the oil price since the start of the second war, Russia has gained a certain economic independence and Western powers have lost some leverage over Putin. However, despite the appeals by human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international, the Western powers have largely turned a blind eye to the war crimes carried out by the Russian Army. When any Western leader does decide to complain, Putin resorts to the argument that because Chechnya is part of Russia foreign powers should not interfere in internal affairs. After 9/11, it became even more acceptable to keep quiet about Chechnya – after all, international terrorism is a "threat" to the world. With its huge oil and gas resources, and the US and Western European economies struggling with the high fuel price, oil has become a lever that Putin can use against the West.

In the early stages of the Beslan school siege, Putin was keen to ‘internationalise’ the crisis – the hostage takers were, it was claimed, were part of a "terrorist international". The FSB (formerly the KGB) sources reported that ten of the hostage takers were Arabs and one was even black. Even on the Monday after the siege ended, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, at a press conference for foreign journalists, claimed that not one of the hostage takers was an ethnic Chechen. This was said, on the one hand, to try and divert attention of the Russian population away from the failure of Putin’s Chechen policy and, on the other hand, to attract international backing for his war against terror. And it was patently a lie. Other information is also being manipulated by the regime. The total number of victims is being maintained below 350, although at least one source from Putin’s office says the figure is nearer 600. This is an attempt to cynically justify the actions of the authorities, who claim that such a hostage crisis is considered "by experts" to have been "successfully" resolved if "only" about 30% of the hostages die!

Other methods are also being used to try and divert blame. Corrupt lower level officials are being targeted. Putin’s drive to ‘clean up’ the state has had no results. Corruption at every level of the state apparatus has increased dramatically since Yeltsin took power. Shamil Basayev and his forces ended up taking over the Budyennovsk hospital for no other reason than that he was trying to get to Moscow and the $25,000 he took with him to bribe the police had run out before he got any further.

The Beslan hostage takers were intending to use the same method to get to Beslan. However, as one TV reporter commented, they managed to find a back road with no police posts so there was no-one they needed to even offer a bribe to. It has now come to light that the suicide bomber who blew up one of the aircraft in mid-September was able to get through the security at Moscow’s new international airport by arriving late, buying a last minute ticket from a black market speculator and getting him to bribe the passport and security controls to let her past without checking. This cost the suicide bomber less than 15 euros! The campaign against corruption has been temporarily stepped up, but as one woman, who lives on the Chechen-Ingush border, explains, this has only resulted in the cost of crossing the border without having the car boot opened going from 30 to 50 roubles!

Corruption in the police has reached such levels that one of the leaders of the terrorists was a former police officer. The head of the Ingush OMON (riot police) was recently revealed to have been recruited by Basayev. It is also disclosed that Basayev recently spent a month "in hiding" in Karbadino-Balkaria (one of the other North Caucasian republics) protected by local police. Nearer to Moscow, several police officers have been accused of accepting bribes to allow explosives to be smuggled into the capital.

All these factors, and the clear incompetence of the government and military forces, have forced Russia’s tamed press to be more critical. Even the state TV channels have reflected some of the concern. The printed press has been more open with newspapers such as ‘Komsomolskaya Pravda’ carrying headlines like, "Lies, lies, lies." So critical was ‘Izvestia’s’ coverage on the day after the siege, the Editor-in-Chief was forced to resign for "reacting in an over emotional way".

In this sense, the events in Beslan mark a turning point in the development of Russian society just as significant as September 11th was a turning point in the USA. It marks the point when Putin’s authority and, in effect, one-man rule – albeit strengthened – is seen to be severely criticized by wide section of the population.

Since coming to power Putin has driven ahead with his policy of "strengthening the vertical of power". This has meant containing the mass media, driving the smaller parties out of politics to leave three or four tame and controlled parties in the parliament, getting rid of regional governors who did not completely back him, strengthening the laws against free speech, the right to protest, and also restricting the power and independence of trade unions – all done in the name of forcing through and speeding up neo-liberal economic reforms. This has meant that more and more power has been left in the hands of Putin’s cronies, the vast majority of whom have made their careers in the power structures – that is the army, police and, in particular, the KGB (now FSB).

Undoubtedly, Putin has amassed great power in his hands and is using the Beslan bloodbath to strengthen the state apparatus and repression. In the absence of a mass socialist alternative, Putin can remain in office for some time. However, there are limits to his power, as the growing opposition to his policies shows. Also, the Russian state is highly corrupt and inept, which weakens Putin’s ability to force through his policies.

The Beslan crisis has demonstrated this truth.. Putin avoided a repeat of what happened two years ago, when the navy submarine Kursk sank with a large loss of life, and he stayed on holiday. At least this time Putin returned to Moscow promptly, when the crisis broke. Other people he as appointed to leading positions managed to keep their heads very low during the crisis. Prime Minister Frodkov, whilst the siege was developing into a bloody battle, called a press conference to announce next year’s privatisation policies. Deputy Leader of Putin’s ’United Russia Party’, Vyacheslav Volodyin, refused to comment on the hostage crisis, saying that Duma deputies have a right to privacy! This has left much of the anger and blame directed at the very power structures that Putin relies on.

This is reflected in those opinion polls that have been organized since 3 September. The journal, ‘Russkii Newsweek’, reported the results of a poll carried out by the "Levada Centre", Russia’s most respected polling organisation. It revealed that 28% of Muscovites were dissatisfied with the actions of Putin during the siege and 38% with the actions of the special forces. These figures are three times higher than those recorded after the Nord-Ost Theatre siege. The rest of the research was even more revealing. 33% of those questioned think that the terrorists were to blame for the Beslan tragedy while 34% blame the FSB for not preventing terrorism and 29% blame Russia’s leadership for continuing the war in Chechnya. 42% think that the seizure of hostages was a result of international terrorism whilst 49% blamed the continuing war in Chechnya. 77% thought that the special forces were incapable of providing security. 31% think that when hostages are seized, the hostage takers should be annihilated even at the cost of hostages’ lives but 55% think that the hostages’ lives should be saved at whatever cost, including meeting the demands of the hostage takers. Not coincidentally, for the first time since he was first elected President, there have been open calls for Putin to resign. His rating was already hovering near to the 50% level before the siege (having been at 85% after Nord-Ost). The latest poll reports that Putin is at his lowest level of support since the submarine disaster. And 61% think Putin’s actions to prevent further terrorist attacks will not succeed. His support may now drop further.

In St Petersburg, officer cadets didn’t even bother changing clothes

This growing opposition is still largely passive, as was demonstrated by the "Demonstrations against terror" held in the days after the end of the siege. These were largely stage-managed affairs organised by the state. The largest in Moscow was attended by 130,000 – many students were told they were expected to attend by the University rectors. Army officer cadets were told to dress in civvies to give the impression they were just ordinary protesters. One reporter wrote that he approached a group of students at the protest and asked why they came. "We came to support our President, look at our banner "Putin, we’re with you". When the reporter asked them were they not there also to support the Beslan bereaved, they replied: "Well, yes, that too – have a sweet". He then turned to the man standing next to them and asked "Did you come to support the President too?" "No, I’m from the local authority to make sure the kids give the banner back!" This stage managing, to some extent, explains why many of the demands reflected those put by the Putin regime. One banner consciously directed at the Blair government read (in English) "Want to help? Extradite Zakayev!" But, even on these demonstrations, the growing undercurrents of opposition could be felt. Some complained that none of the official speakers reflected any emotions; others complained that the meetings had been stage managed.

The anti-Britain slogans reflected the position that Vladimir Putin expressed in his speeches since the start of the siege. He originally hinted that some foreign powers were helping Chechnya to, "tear off a bit of Russia". If there was some ambiguity in his remarks when he first made them, he was more explicit in naming the US and other Western powers when he later spoke to foreign press reporters. On the one hand, this was done almost as a warning shot across the bows to prevent the US and others from putting too much pressure on him. On the other hand, it indicated that Putin is under pressure and instinctively lashed out at those who he was trained to treat as the mortal enemy during his years in the KGB.

During his television address after the bloody end of the siege, Putin was friendly towards Bush and Nato. But he also attacked unnamed powers for trying to use Chechnya to break up the Russian state. The Bush administration needs to keep Putin on side in its ‘war on terror’ but the US ruling class also has geo-strategic and economic interests in the Caucusus. They want to fully exploit the natural resources of the Caucusus and Central Asia. Russia, after all, is a competing imperialist state, and the US ruling class does not want it strengthened.

The demonstrations "against terror" are in stark contrast to those that took place in Vladikavkaz, the capital of Northern Ossetia, in the days after the siege. Thousands gathered outside the City Hall to angrily protest at the inaction of the Republic’s government during the siege, at the corruption widespread in the region, and the fact that the remainder of Beslan’s schools was still unguarded – unlike the City hall, which had plenty of armed guards to prevent the crowd storming it. The local communist party played a significant role in organizing these protests and called for the resignation of the local government. The protesters threatened to storm the government buildings until the Republican President, Dzacokhov, came out and agreed to sack the whole government. The communist party, however, put an extremely opportunist position, effectively bowing to the overwhelming pogromist mood of the crowd. The Ossetian protesters on the way to Vladikavkaz had tried to seek out Chechens and Ingush, threatening to kill any they came across.

On 21 September, there was also a a big protest in the Republic of Kalmyka – bordering Dagestan to the North – this has long been a semi-dictatorial region headed by a young neo-liberal who has made quite clear there is no place for democracy in a market system. The demo was against corruption and misuse of power in the republic. The protest was brutally broken up, with around 80 arrests made.

Explosive national question

The extremely explosive nature of the national question in the region has now been made far worse by the siege. Russian North Ossetia borders Georgian South Ossetia which just two months ago was on the verge of war with the new Georgian government. North Ossetia also borders the Russian republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. There are so many ethnic groups in Dagestan that new ones were discovered in the recent census. The Chechens and Ingushi were deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan. That in itself was a huge crime. Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, people from these states were still only returning home. The state did not build new accommodation for those that returned and they were left arguing with those that had been left in the region. This exasperated the already high tensions that escalated into open clashes, including the four-day Ossetian-Ingush war in 1992. There is no political or social force in the region that attempts to cut across these ethnic divisions and most political parties, as demonstrated by the communist party in Northern Ossetia, attempt to base themselves on ethnic groups at the expense of others. Add to this, the fact that this is by far the poorest part of the Russian Federation, where monthly wages are counted not even in hundreds but in tens of dollars, and the danger of future ethnic clashes is clear.

The Russian North Caucasus: 1: Krasnodar 2: Stavropol 3: Adygea 4: Karachay-Cherkassia 5: Kabardino-Balkaria 6: North Ossetia 7: Ingushetia: 8: Chechnya

This makes the automatic reaction of many regional and political forces to terrorist acts even more dangerous. They demand the tightening of registration rules, the closing of borders and restrictions on travel between regions. These proposals take Russia back to the worst Stalinist period when people were allocated a place to live and were not allowed to move between cities. Moscow Mayor, Luzhkov, has even said that all Chechens should be expelled from the city – even though many Chechens play a big role in the city’s cultural, scientific and economic life. Other politicians have said that "all Caucasians" should be kicked out of Moscow. That would mean not only Chechens and Ingushi being expelled, but also Armenians and Georgians and, of course, Ossetians, who were the main victims of the Beslan school siege. This would be a historical irony, as Joseph Stalin, who, as part of his war against the Bolshevik principles of internationalism, re-introduced Great Russian chauvinism as the state ideology, was himself an Ossetian!

These "law and order" demands by right wing politicians are accompanied by racist propaganda in the mass media. Just as the European press print scare stories about "waves" of illegal immigrants entering the EU, Russia’s television does "exposes" about small flats, for example, where allegedly 230 people have been officially registered to live. Such campaigns give the state, and particularly the police, extra powers to step up discrimination and repression, without any recourse to the legal rights. Earlier this week, police arrested and beat up an elderly Chechen in Moscow. He turned out to be a well known test pilot who was awarded Russia’s highest award, the "Hero of Russia". Less well-known Chechens are treated much worse. A group of twenty building workers were recently arrested and, in the words of the police press release, "deported to their homeland".

As a consequence of the racist climate there has been a stepping up of racist attacks by skinhead and fascist groups. At least two Caucasians have been murdered by such thugs in the past week. Chechen women in Moscow, including even a well-known TV presenter, complain that life has become much more dangerous. In North Ossetia, Chechens and Ingush have had to go into hiding or even leave their homes for fear of retaliation.

Putin’s image has already been harmed by the siege and its bloody aftermath. He immediately declared that there would not be a public inquiry. Within days he was forced to backtrack on this and announced that an enquiry would be held, even if not fully public, headed by the President of the Senate. But there are not many illusions that this will draw any radical conclusions. The enquiry after Nord-Ost tragedy has been without result and Sergei Mironov, who will head the inquiry, is known for his creeping loyalty to Putin. In the Presidential election he stood "against" Putin, only to call on electors to vote for the sitting President as the "best" candidate.

Far more significant are the "reforms" and personnel changes that Putin has introduced to tackle the threat of terrorism. Firstly, he has announced that Regional Governors will no longer be elected by popular vote but nominated by him and approved by regional legislatures. By doing so, Putin implies that the regional governors were the main cause of the crisis.

The Governors are already noted for their loyalty to the Kremlin. However, after the election to the state parliament, the Gosduma (or Duma), practically eliminated opposition to Putin, some of the regional governors have been reflected the huge opposition there is to the government’s‘social policy’ reforms. At the same time, Putin has announced the implementation of a reform in the government first discussed after the last election- in future, the Parliament will only be elected from party lists. As a consequence, the Gosduma will be even more dominated by the pro-Presidential parties, as independents and smaller parties will stand no chance of being elected. Putin already has 75% of Gosduma Deputies openly on his side – and most of the others will not directly oppose him. These two reforms will concentrate even more power into his hands, but will make any rule much more vulnerable in any future crisis. At the same time, Putin sent his former Chief of Staff, Dmitri Kozak, to run the North Caucuses, moving him away from his current job, which is supposed to involve driving through the reforms of the state structure to make it more streamlined.

Almost without exception, the regional governors supported this "reform". The Governor of Bryansk called it "a fantastic move". Incidentally, he is supposed to be a ‘communist’. Moscow Mayor Luzhkov also jumped on the bandwagon. Out of the ninety nine regional governors, half were already singed up to Putin’s party before his recent announcement. Ten more have joined the government party since the ‘reform’ announcement and a further twenty are expected to do so.

The lack of a genuine, mass socialist alternative means that the growing angry opposition to Putin’s social and economic policies and his growing authoritarianism is not channeled in a way that can mount a serious challenge to his rule, and a viable alternative, at the present time.

The enthusiasm of the local governors for Putin’s attacks on democratic rights is easy to explain. Most are coming to the end of their second elected term and cannot stand any longer. The reform means that as long as they remain on the right side of the President, they will be re-appointed back into office. But, as one political commentator, Alexander Dianov, explained: "Putin will be the only person responsible for everything. But he will also be the only person to blame, even for regional problems."

Few are convinced that these ‘reforms’ will work. Many see them as irrelevant to the "fight against terrorism". Since the Beslan siege, government ministers have assured the population that the necessary resources for the fight against terrorism will be provided to the police and military structures and the leaders of the Gosduma fractions have promised to support the necessary expenditures. But state expenditure on security has already been growing by 30% a year and accounts for one third of all state expenditure. Not surprisingly, therefore, when the Radio station, ‘Ekho Moskvy’, asked its listeners if Putin could win this battle, of the 5,900 people who phoned in, 93 percent said "No."

Socialist resistance on march against wars in Iraq and Chechnya in central Moscow March 2004

The endless and worsening nightmare connected with the Chechen conflict shows that Putin cannot guarantee peace and stability, neither in Chechnya nor in any other part of Russia. And this is not just a question of Putin’s personnel role in Russian politics. The capitalist system that Putin represents means war, poverty and unemployment. Annual GDP per head for the whole of Russia in 2003 was $3170 US dollars. The Northern caucusus is the lowest – Ingushetia has the record – $287 a year – expected to fall to $284 this year. 

Capitalist rule means war and poverty

Capitalist rule in Russia also means a struggle between different sections of the ruling elite for power, prestige, perks, influence and wealth. Because Russia’s ruling class will not give up this power and wealth, unless they are forced to, they will continue to use violence and coercion to prevent the Chechen people having control over their own lives. One commentator even suggested that the way to resolve the conflict was to increase the money paid to the Chechen government so that the different interests would spend time squabbling between them as to how to divide it up.

And, of course, oil leaves its stain over the region. Chechnya is in the middle of one of the easiest routes for an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the West. Yet notwithstanding the high price of oil on the world market, and the huge windfall into the Russian government’s coffers from the sale of oil and gas, none (not even a little) of this money is making its way into the poverty stricken regions of Chechnya, or for that matter into the rest of the Northern Caucusus. If in Moscow the average monthly wage is 285 euros and the cost of the minimal basket of goods necessary for life is 41, in Chechnya the average wage is 131 euros and the same basket costs 38. Throughout the North Caucuses the average income is only 1.6 times the subsistence level and nearly half the population has an income below the official subsistence level.

As the experience of life in the republic between the two wars showed, even the de-facto independence of those days turned into a nightmare as the Chechen warlords established their own regime and divided up the republic’s wealth and assets between them. If today Chechnya was to gain even formal independence, it would be led by former warlords such as Basayev. In that sense, getting rid of the occupiers would not get rid of the warmongers, nor would it get rid of the poverty and inequality. At the same time, surrounded by imperialist powers, it would become no more than small change in the big game still being waged by Russia, the USA, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the region.

Russia, while refusing independence to Chechnya has not shown any reluctance to provoke separatist struggles in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 1992, when war broke out between Abkhazia and Georgia, Russia sent an armed battalion of Chechen "volunteers" – led by none other than Shamil Basayev. Recent events in Georgia have also shown that the new pro-US President, Mikhail Saakashvili, is just as prepared to provoke armed conflict to bring the rebel areas back under control.

Supporting the right to self-determination for Chechnya therefore does not mean appealing to governments or even the UN, but to the workers and peasants in the region, and, particularly, for workers in Russia itself to join the struggle against the capitalist government in Russia, to step up the fight against poverty and the other consequences of capitalist restoration and to join with workers of all nationalities to fight against national repression and war.

The rights of the peoples of the Caucuses to live free from military repression, dictatorships and economic depravation can only be guaranteed in this way. The struggle to defend the rights of refugees, for democratic and national rights within Chechnya, and for the economic and social rights of workers, youth and pensioners in the republic is linked up with the struggle of workers and youth in the other Caucasian republics, and in Russia. Socialists put forward the socialist transformation of society, based on the nationalisation of oil and other natural resources, under democratic workers’ control and management, to form a voluntary and equal confederation of genuine workers’ states in the Caucuses.

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September 2004