Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 37

Since the tragic events in Beslan, much has changed in Russia. At first there was shock. The authorities seemed disoriented; instead of working effectively to rescue the hostages, they issued shameless lies about how many hostages there were. They even failed to visit the scene of the crisis until it was over.

President Putin stated, apparently for the first time ever, that war had been declared on Russia. But even more shocking were his belated admissions about corruption among the police. Was it really necessary for us to experience the Beslan tragedy before he could admit this? In effect he confirmed what the human-rights advocates whom he so dislikes had been saying for a long time—as had thousands of helpless civilians in the North Caucasus—about the massive corruption in the law-enforcement bodies there and the resulting reign of unchecked, arbitrary force including state kidnappings and extra-judicial sentences.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to rewrite history and bring the dead back to life. Putin’s honest admission of corruption should have been a signal for the beginning of serious efforts to strengthen civic society, to elevate the role of non-government organizations, to create independent mechanisms for monitoring the police and the security agencies. But instead, we are continuing to see the strengthening of the president’s “vertical of power.” The planned elimination of popular elections for provincial governors will lead to a still greater centralization of power and thus to still greater social tensions.

The ever more docile mass media, the puppet parliament and the new regional leaders dependent on the Kremlin have already announced their support of the president’s proposals. Suddenly these people have begun to notice that elections are not always conducted honestly, are overly influenced by the criminal world and by dirty methods of campaigning—as if all this had not been true for a long time about all elections in Russia, including the election of Putin himself.

Unquestionably, many people in the country, including many in the ethnic republics, are dissatisfied with the local leaders who have usurped so many powers and stolen so much public wealth in the course of turning the provinces into their own private fiefdoms. Whispers of discontent against the regional barons have been heard for a long time. It is said that one governor has a wife who has somehow managed to become a billionaire, that another has put his own son in charge of all the province’s finances, that a third is busy buying up foreign properties… But instead of taking steps to give the citizenry more power to influence the governors, to check their lawlessness and perhaps even to replace them, the Kremlin has decided to do just the opposite—to eliminate direct elections and thus deprive the people of the right to choose their own local leaders. This is a paradoxical decision. The authorities are refusing to try to activate civic society and strengthen each citizen’s sense of responsibility; instead they are going out of their way to atomize the populace. This policy may lead to extremely dangerous consequences for the entire country. One need not be an oracle to foresee at least three results of Putin’s new initiatives:

– the strengthening of the central government, with a corresponding increase in the role of federal bureaucrats and decrease in that of the provinces. This new version of the old command-administrative system is likely to be a brake on economic and entrepreneurial activity.

– a significant weakening of the sense of personal responsibility to the local population among the regional leaders, who in effect will have been appointed by the center; as a consequence of this, ever greater alienation among these leaders from the people and from their real needs.

– finally, a powerful stimulus to separatist feelings among the ethnic elites in the regions.

There is, of course, no doubt that the Kremlin will easily overcome the weak legal barriers that survive in Russia and will easily push its “reforms” through its pocket parliament. But this could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Constantly surrounded by the yes-men of his own court and his puppet governors, the president of Russia will easily become disoriented. Moreover, the elimination of regional elections in a gigantic country which formally still has a federalist structure—and in which some of the provinces have explicitly ethnic identities—will mean the intensification of a wide range of tensions between the center and the regions, including increased radicalism and xenophobia. This could prove to be explosive.

One of Russia’s peculiarities is that it has become impossible for subordinates to question even his most dubious decisions. If the president has expressed his will firmly and emotionally, his decision cannot possibly be thought to have been mistaken. For the moment Putin has widespread popular support—but only Putin himself, not his subordinates. Furthermore, that support cannot last unless the president radically changes his policies. After all, Putin himself is one of the creators of the current system. A paradoxical situation has arisen in which all of us have been transformed into hostages of that system. Under conditions in which almost none of the basic institutions of democracy are secure and there is no civil society, in which there are no truly independent branches of government (in Russia only the trunk of the tree remains standing—the branches have all been chopped off)—in such a situation one can rely only on the authority of the president himself. If he should sway and topple, chaos will reign in the country—followed by a gradual transition to radical or authoritarian rule, and then a bloody war of all against all. Thus we are all now hostages—especially Putin himself.

Since the president has now definitively made his strategic choice, we no longer have many different options from which to choose. The Kremlin really ought to initiate a new method for considering new legislative proposals: For example, if regional legislatures or civic organizations object to a proposal, the president should take those objections seriously and drop it. But if the Putin administration insists on silencing all such independent voices, then it will be clear to everyone that the country has only 10 to 15 men definitively deciding everything for everyone, and that these men consider themselves wiser than all the rest of us in our millions. Our society will then have been transformed into an utterly silent majority, an obedient crowd. That crowd will rarely even question the authorities about their political and economic blunders or about the abuses of the bureaucracy.

The authorities will always manage to find adequate carrots and sticks, bread and circuses to keep the Russian people manageable. The elite will lead lives that parallel those of the people but never intersect with them. One side will enjoy more trips to Switzerland, more plush country homes, a whole range of special economic privileges—while on the other will endure slashes even in mass-transit subsidies. The gulf between the two will inevitably lead to a social explosion. In a true civic society, contradictions are resolved by means of public discussion, protest meetings, elections—but that is not how things will be done in the near future in Russia.

Right after the terrorist attack in Beslan, Putin managed to express himself in words that found widespread support, even among those who oppose his policies. “One of the goals of the terrorists was to incite inter-ethnic hatred and to produce an explosion in the North Caucasus,” he sternly declared. “All those who yield to such provocations should be considered as collaborators in the terrorist attack and accomplices of the terrorists.”

But unfortunately, subsequent events showed that those seeking to incite fear in the country have to a great extent achieved their goals—with the help of Putin’s own government. The current administration is able to consider only those measures that are proposed by the siloviki who now occupy so many key posts; thus we are once again seeing the indiscriminate hunting down of newcomers. In Moscow—the capital of a federal state!—we are hearing calls for a blanket prohibition on immigration from conflict zones. Police cars are covered with pictures of female terrorists. Moscow’s police chief proudly reported that his men had captured the Chechens who supposedly murdered Paul Klebnikov. The retired colonel Pumane allegedly confessed while he was still alive that he had been ferrying bomb-laden cars around at the command of people from the Caucasus. Thugs set fire to trading stalls of Azerbaijanis and Armenians, shouting, “Take that for your terrorism!” Women dressed in traditional Muslim fashion have to endure public insults.

The methods chosen by the current authorities in the war on terrorism are leading to further strengthening of the siloviki, further weakening of democratic institutions, and still more limitations on civil rights. The security agencies’ criminal treatment of Pumane and the shameless lies of the police officials are the logical, horrifying consequence. In a civilized country the government would be forced to resign after such a scandal—but we have responded with irresponsible silence.

If the authorities do not take urgent measures to correct the situation, the entire country will soon be engulfed by panic and hatred. To talk about a war on terrorism without noticing what is really happening in Chechnya is extremely dangerous. The federal center does not want to notice that a military solution is impossible, just as it is impossible to solve the Chechen problem by means of semi-legal structures that only arouse hatred among the local populace. The entire administrative system in Chechnya, with its reliance on local robbers and federal bureaucrats, is only promoting the embezzlement of federal funds earmarked for the republic’s restoration. Federal officials on short-term tours of duty arrive and soon leave again, leaving all the problems unchanged. Where are all these former officials now—those through whose hands colossal sums of money have passed?

Even the Chechen officials of the pro-Moscow administration are now working only part-time in their homeland, spending significant parts of their time in Moscow or in other cities; almost all of them now have apartments or expensive houses in the capital. These bureaucrats are interested in preserving the status quo in Chechnya; they talk about the “special conditions” there as an excuse for satisfying their own greed. Though perhaps it is these forces that are misleading Putin, most likely the president does indeed understand that federal policy in Chechnya is profoundly mistaken—but for various reasons is unable to change it.

All the same, the most important thing now is at least to begin some process of negotiations. The first stage might be preliminary talks between non-government organizations. Even talks with Aslan Maskhadov do not mean that one has to hand over power to Maskhadov. In fact, even those who recognize Maskhadov as Chechnya’s legitimately elected president for the most part understand that there cannot be a return to the Maskhadov government of the late 1990s. Nevertheless, Maskhadov is a symbol. It would be a strong step by a strong government to treat with respect the choice that the Chechen people made in 1997. The Russian government must at least give some kind of signal; it must show that it no longer automatically considers every separatist to be a terrorist.

Another important benefit of negotiations would be that at last the Russian public and the world at large could actually see what Maskhadov’s side has to propose. The process of negotiations would show whether the moderate resistance is prepared to cooperate in the war on terrorism—and whether it is capable of taking responsibility for what is happening in Chechnya. At present Maskhadov’s people have a certain advantage in that the federal center has repeatedly claimed that they are utterly crushed, completely powerless and unable to command or represent anyone. If that were really so, the federal center would bear sole responsibility for everything—but the true situation is considerably more complicated.

Yes, the Kremlin has stage-managed a referendum and elections in Chechnya and has established new Kadyrovite units; it is hard for it now to consider even the possibility of different political processes which would take into account the Maskhadov side. But it is absolutely necessary to do this—and to get started on the complicated, challenging work of peace.