Russians are still in shock and mourning over the vast human tragedy in Beslan, North Ossetia. However, a number of observers, including both supporters and critics of the Kremlin, are saying that the terrorist attack there could present a challenge to the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000 on the strength of his promise to make short work of Chechen separatists and otherwise establish an effective “vertical of power” in the country.
Not surprisingly, some of the harshest critiques of the Kremlin in the wake of the terrorist seizure of Beslan’s School No. 1 and the murder of hundreds of people, including many schoolchildren, have come from representatives of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia. Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent State Duma deputy, noted that the seizure of hostages in Beslan was preceded by a series of other attacks, including the June insurgent raid on law-enforcement headquarters and other government installations in Ingushetia, which killed more than 90 people; the August 21 rebel attacks on the center of the Chechen capital of Grozny, which killed some 30 people; the August 24 downing of two airliners, which killed 90 people; and the August 31 suicide bombing near Moscow’s Rizhskaya metro station, which killed ten people.
“This shows that we are completely unprotected in the air, on the metro, in the capital, beyond its boundaries, and [that] even in . . . Chechnya’s capital, federal forces are not in a position to control the city even during the day,” Ryzhkov wrote. “All this shows that the president’s contract with the people is not being fulfilled. The fact is that he received enormous power — moreover, personal power: the parliament, parties, mass media passed into [the background], their independence was essentially annulled. He received a contract to impose order on the country and provide security for the people. Today we see that this contract has been violated.”
In Ryzhkov’s view, Putin is constitutionally obligated to consider all possible courses of action to protect Russia’s citizens, including talks with the more moderate elements of the Chechen separatist movement. “A dialogue could be conducted with those representatives of the resistance who were not directly involved in organizing and carrying out these monstrous terrorist acts,” he wrote. “I think this is completely possible. But the question arises: what to do with that second part of the terrorists, with whom it is impossible to carry out a dialogue because they are up to their elbows in blood? Here, the answer must be given by the special services, which, like a bad boxer, are allowing all blows to get under their guard. Only the blows are landing not so much on them as on the innocent citizens of Russia” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 6).
According to political analyst Dmitri Furman, the problem lies not with the Russian president, per se. “Against the backdrop of the recent terrible events, to speak of the failure of Putin’s policy in Chechnya, and not only in Chechnya, is to belabor the obvious,” he wrote. “One will not find many people who will maintain that a policy whose results are the direct opposite of its intended goals is correct. But our misfortune is not that we have a bad president carrying out a bad policy . . . The horror of our situation is not that the president allowed mistakes, but that in a system in which there is no alternative to the [ruling] authorities, any mistake . . . becomes . . . irreparable.”
Putin could have avoided starting the second Chechen war or could have stopped it early on by “reaching an agreement with [separatist leader Aslan] Maskhadov,” Furman continued. “Even having already occupied Chechnya with troops, he still could have allowed . . . relatively free elections in Chechnya. In general, there was much he could have done. But now he can already do nothing . . . In 1991, it seemed to us that we had changed cardinally. But, if we changed, we did not change cardinally. We created a system in which we reproduced the basic principles of the Soviet system — an unchallengeable government carrying out an unchallengeable policy” (Moskovskie novosti, September 5).
Somewhat more surprisingly, Stanislv Belkovsky, the political analyst once considered a leading strategist of the assault by Kremlin siloviki on the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, said in an interview that the recent terrorist attacks prove, “The so-called vertical of power is extremely weak, practically ephemeral.” “[T]he impunity of the terrorists, the ease with which they penetrate everywhere, once again prove that the vertical of power is not competent to resolve the nation’s key problems, in particular the problem of the citizenry’s security,” he said. According to Belkovsky, Putin should fire “all the heads of the political and analytical subdivisions of his administration” because the terrorist attacks were the result of the failure of the Kremlin’s policy in the North Caucasus specifically and domestic policy in general. Unlike some observers, however, Belkovsky did not call for the resignation of top security officials. “The special services and army are only an instrument of domestic policy,” he said. “But not its source” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 7).