Candidates Seek To Focus Spotlight On Controversies

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 3

Rightist presidential candidate Irina Khakamada launched her campaign this week with a surprisingly strong attack on the incumbent Putin over Chechnya. Raising issues that the Kremlin clearly wants to keep out of any public forum, she said that she is convinced that the hostage takers who seized the Dubrovka theater in 2002 did not plan to detonate their bombs, and that the Putin administration “was not interested in saving all the hostages.”

Khakamada, who had entered the theater during the 2002 crisis to negotiate with the hostage takers in person, said that the release of the hostages could have been obtained by means of peaceful negotiations. The storming of the building by the special forces, she added, was necessary only as a demonstration of force by authorities for whom peoples’ lives were a secondary concern.

She said that Putin’s chief of staff responded to her efforts as a mediator in 2002 by personally demanding that she stop “interfering.” Putin’s actions to conceal the truth about what happened, she said, “were in essence a state crime.”

Ivan Rybkin, the former speaker of the Russian parliament who is also running against Putin in the March election, has likewise challenged the official version of events. In comments published by Novaya gazeta on January 15, Rybkin said that “at a top-secret meeting during the Budennovsk events [the 1995 hostage crisis in which Chechen terrorists led by Shamil Basaev seized a hospital in southern Russia], officials of the security agencies told me the direct opposite [of what the Putin administration has said about the use of soporific gas in hostage situations]. They said that it was impossible to use chemical agents in a bus with hostages because that would only increase the likelihood of uncontrolled use of explosives…” Rybkin said that, in his view, Putin must have known that the Dubrovka hostage takers were not going to detonate any explosive devices, or he would not have ordered the use of the powerful gas in the theater.

Rybkin also charged that Terkibaev, one of the suspected double agents in the Dubrovka affair, died recently (in an ostensible accident) because “the authorities had not succeeded in concealing him.”

Defenders of the Putin administration have responded energetically, attempting to suppress all discussion of the issues raised by Rybkin and Khakamada. One of the most interesting reactions so far has been a statement from the office of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, which reads as if it could have been dictated by the Kremlin staff, but which is far more effective coming from elsewhere. The statement, published in the January 16 issue of Moskovsky komsomolets, zeroed in on one of Khakamada’s weak points–the timing of her raising her accusations against the man whose opponent she has just become in the presidential race. The statement simply ignored the most explosive issues, such as the possible presence of double agents from the Russian security services among the hostage takers. It called Khakamada’s charges “unacceptable and immoral insinuations aimed at destroying social stability.”