While the first anniversary of the September 2004 Beslan hostage tragedy passed peacefully, the tension between residents of Beslan and the Russian authorities is increasing.
Initially, it seemed the September 2 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and representatives from the Mothers of Beslan Committee would improve the situation (see EDM, September 9). After the meeting Susanna Duduaeva, head of the Committee, told journalists that if the president wanted to know the truth about what had happened in Beslan, then they would support him (gazeta.ru, September 2). Putin told the mothers that he had been misinformed and promised to investigate all the data, to clarify everything personally, and to punish all those who were responsible for the tragedy (grani.ru, September 3).
However, the “truce” between the mothers and the authorities did not last long. At a different meeting just one day later, Putin mentioned Beslan but did not express any regrets. The mothers were furious because the president had not kept his promise. Putin responded by asking a Kommersant journalist, “What do you want from me? The penitence should be in a man’s heart, like faith. I will live with that” (Kommersant, September 4). Putin also announced that a special commission from the prosecutor’s office, headed by Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov, would be sent Beslan to launch an additional investigation. This will be the third commission.
From the very beginning, there were two investigation commissions, a local group from North Ossetia and one from the Russian parliament. While the federal commission, headed by Alexander Torshin, delayed the release of its report, the Ossetian one, headed by Stanislav Kesaev, deputy chair of the Ossetian parliament, was ready to publish theirs any time.
On September 1, Novaya gazeta published preliminary versions of the two reports. A comparison of the documents showed that the authors had different aims. While the federal report justified more than criticized the actions of the federal authorities during the hostage crisis, the Ossetian report was more critical of security officials and Moscow officials. For example, the Ossetian report pointed at Dmitry Peskov, a deputy press secretary in the presidential administration, and “Vasiliev,” a member of the Moscow office of the Russian State TV and Radio Company, as the persons who ordered Ossetian officials not to reveal the real number of hostages held in the school
The Federal report said that General V.A. Andreev, head of the Ossetian branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and commander of the anti-terrorist staff, directed the operation, while the Ossetians pointed at Nikolai Patrushev, the Director of FSB, and his deputies Pronichev and Anisimov as the real chiefs of the operation. The Ossetian report also mentioned the use of tanks and flame-throwers during the rescue operation. Certain facts in the Ossetian report suggested that many of the hostages died because of the flame-throwers, which the document said were used by FSB special units (Novaya gazeta, September 1).
Russian authorities were enraged by the publication of the Ossetian report. The new commission from the prosecutor’s office was dispatched to Ossetia to redirect popular anger from federal to local authorities. During a press conference in North Ossetia, Kolesnikov and Nikolai Shepel, a deputy prosecutor-general to the Southern Federal District, attacked Teimuraz Mansurov, the head of the republic, and Kesaev, with sharp criticism and threats.
Kolesnikov pledged to question all concerned and wondered aloud why Mansurov had not been interrogated yet. As for Kesaev, Kolesnikov criticized him even more severely. He said that Kesaev should reveal his sources, and Shepel said that he disagreed with Kesaev’s public stance, likely referring to the leaked Ossetian Commission report (NTV, September 7). Mansurov and Kesaev met with the prosecutors and answered all their questions, but Kesaev refused to name his sources. Despite the pressure from federal security officials, the Ossetian political leaders do not want to become scapegoats in this story and continue to insist that the main responsibility for the Beslan drama lies in Moscow, not Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital.
Although they failed to make a deal with Kesaev and Mansurov, the prosecutors did manage to further antagonize the Mothers of Beslan. On September 11, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States, Shepel declared that the school in Beslan had been seized by a group of international terrorists. The mothers disagreed, saying that most of the terrorists were from Chechnya and Ingushetia. They regarded Shepel’s comment as an attempt by the authorities to conceal the truth (grani.ru, September 11). The Mothers again demanded Shepel’s resignation.
Shepel hit back by saying that the “witnesses” in the Beslan case were talking about things they had not seen and were just repeating information they got from the media. This statement riled the mothers even more, who now declared that their meeting with Putin had produced no results (grani.ru, September 11).
Prosecutor-General Viktor Ustinov himself then went to Ossetia to resolve the problem. The authorities understood that something else should be done to restore the Beslan residents’ trust in the official investigation. Ustinov changed the composition of the investigative team and promised to start new expert examinations in Beslan, including interrogations of top federal top security officials including FSB Director Patrushev (grani.ru, September 13).
Again and again the Russian authorities have tried to calm the survivors of the Beslan attack, but again and again they hear the same question: “Who killed our relatives and loved ones?” The Kremlin will not answer this question because it bears the most blame.