ONE YEAR LATER, BESLAN STILL A SERIOUS TEST FOR PUTIN
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 167
Last week Russia marked the first anniversary of the Beslan tragedy. On September 1, a terrorist group from Chechnya seized a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, taking more than 1,0000 people, mostly children, hostage. More than 300 hostage died during the chaotic rescue operation two days later.
It is still unclear exactly how the Beslan crisis played out. According to the official version, the explosion inside the school was an accident, and the authorities did not plan to attack the school to release the hostages.
But when the trial of the only surviving terrorist opened in Beslan, survivors and relatives of the dead all expressed their anger not at the terrorists, but at the authorities and the federal security officials. The situation became worse when survivors of the siege testified that Special Forces and tanks had shot at the school. They told the court that many of the hostages were burned alive by flame-throwers used by special-task units. Soon the trial turned its focus from judging the suspected terrorist to criticizing the authorities.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary, members of the “Mothers of Beslan” Committee protested the official investigation by the Russian prosecutor’s office. Even worse for the authorities, local residents made clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be welcome in Beslan during the anniversary. The Committee released a statement saying, “Putin is responsible for what happened in Beslan and in Russia” (Vremya novostei, September 1).
The authorities realized that something should be done to change the mood of the locals, otherwise the standoff could tarnish Russia’s image abroad and make the tense situation in North Ossetia even worse. On August 26, the Kremlin announced that Putin had invited the Mothers to visit him in Moscow on September 2. The women were enraged by the suggestion that they should be in Moscow with Putin during the mourning period and not in Beslan’s graveyards along with their dead children. “He knows quite well that we can’t go on that day, but we received an ultimatum that he wanted to see us exactly then,” fumed Ella Kesaeva, a member of the Mothers Committee (Vremya novostei, September 1).
Nevertheless, four mothers, including Susanna Duduaeva, the head of the Committee, finally agreed to go to Moscow. Prior to the visit, members of the Committee met in Beslan with Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s envoy in the Southern Federal District. Kozak sought to prepare the mothers for their meeting with the president and tried to find out what the Committee members would say in Moscow. But the only thing Kozak heard from the mothers was their complaints that Putin would receive them only on that one sacred date. For the entire year since the tragedy, they pointed out, “He had time to spend with his dog, but could not find time to meet us” (Kommersant, September 2). Obviously the meeting in Moscow would not be easy for either side.
The mothers went to Moscow accompanied by Teimuraz Mansurov, the leader of North Ossetia. At the beginning of the meeting Putin, avoiding eye contact with the mothers, announced, “The state [Russia] cannot provide security to the extent and quality required for its own citizens” (Interfax, September 2).
After his speech, Putin responded to the mothers’ questions. His answers suggested that Putin wanted the mothers to believe that he actually knew very little about what had happened in Beslan on September 3, 2004; consequently their complaints should be addressed to the local authorities. Putin met every sharp complaint from the mothers with the same phrase: “These are your authorities and your officials” (Kommersant, September 3).
Talking about Chechnya, Putin said that he just did not know how to meet the terrorists’ demand to stop the war in the region and withdraw the army, as there was no war and no army there. He suggested that flame-throwers were used in Beslan only to make a smokescreen and could not have caused the fire. When he was asked why he did not fire Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the Federal Security Service, after the slaughter in the school, Putin responded, “Replacing people is not the best way to improve the situation” (Kommersant, September 3).
Despite such cynical lies, the mothers were satisfied with the meeting because the president agreed to help them to uncover the truth. The day after the meeting Putin announced that he would send a special commission from the prosecutor’s office to launch an additional investigation.
At least for now, the Russian authorities can breathe easily. The anniversary events are over, and the mothers are keeping quiet at the moment, waiting for the result of Putin’s promises. However, no matter the extent of the latest investigation, Beslan will continue to gnaw at the Kremlin. No measures will help the country through this trauma until the Russian government admits that it was responsible for the tragedy that occurred last year in what had once been a peaceful Ossetian town. This confession is exactly what the mothers of Beslan want from the Russian president, yet the former KGB man does not dare to make it.