Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 33

The anniversary of the Beslan school hostage seizure was marked by, among other things, a meeting on September 2 between President Vladimir Putin and a delegation of eight Beslan residents—four members of the Belsan Mothers’ Committee, three men who also lost children in the tragedy, and North Ossetian President Teimuraz Mamsurov, two of whose children were among the hostages and were wounded. In the meeting, the Russian president promised a thorough investigation into how the crisis was handled, but said that Russia could not protect its citizens against terrorism. The Moscow Times noted that while immediately after the meeting members of the delegation expressed satisfaction that they had finally met with the president, on September 4 they said they had thought he would later publicly apologize for the deaths of 331 hostages. That did not happen: the Kremlin website reported that during a Kremlin Security Council meeting on September 3, Putin simply announced that a group of investigators would be sent to Beslan from the Prosecutor General’s Office to revitalize the investigation.

As the journalist and commentator Yulia Latynina noted in a column published in the Moscow Times on September 7, the meeting with Putin, which—much against the wishes of the victims’ relatives—happened in the middle of the anniversary of the Beslan tragedy, was a “masterstroke of political PR.” It provoked a discussion of the “pros and cons” of the meeting itself rather than “the issues that mattered on the first anniversary of the school seizure in Beslan”—that is, the details of the official mishandling of the crisis that have emerged from eyewitness testimony at the trial of Nur-Pashi Kulaev, the only living member of the terrorist team involved in the hostage seizure.

But while most media coverage of Putin’s meeting with the Beslan residents carefully avoided such issues, details of the meeting reported by Natalya Galimova of Moskovsky komsomolets on September 5 revealed an astonishing level of either feigned or genuine ignorance on Putin’s part about what really happened in Belsan over September 1-3, 2004.

Galimova interviewed one of the members of the Beslan delegation, Anneta Gadieva, who was a hostage along with two daughters, one of whom was killed. According to Gadieva’s account, Putin said he had been told there were only 300-350 hostages in Beslan’s School No. 1 and “right to the bitter end” had not known the precise number of hostages. Gadieva also quoted Putin as claiming that there is a witness who saw the terrorist who had his foot on the detonator pedal for the explosives that were hung up around the school building finish reading the Qur’an and took his foot off the pedal, thereby detonating the explosives. “But we replied that no such evidence had been heard in the court,” Gadieva recounted. “We do not remember anyone at all saying such a thing. ‘That means that I have incorrect information. I shall check this information out,’ the president promised.” Kulaev claimed in his court testimony that the terrorist manning the detonator pedal was shot by a sniper, which triggered the explosions (see Chechnya Weekly, June 1).

Gadieva also said that when Putin was asked about eyewitness testimony (backed by leaks from official investigations) that security forces fired on the school from tanks while the hostages were still inside (see Chechnya Weekly, June 1 and August 3), he responded that the servicemen involved in the storming of the school had answered a questionnaire and that “all of them deny that such a thing happened.” When another member of the Beslan delegation, Azamat Sabanov, told Putin that he himself had witnessed the tank fire, Putin responded: “We will investigate this.”

Meanwhile, Novaya gazeta on September 1 published what it said were findings of the North Ossetian parliamentary commission investigating the Beslan tragedy, which is headed by the North Ossetian parliament’s vice speaker, Stanislav Kesaev, side-by-side with those of the Russian parliamentary commission looking into the tragedy, which is headed by Aleksandr Torshin. According to the article’s author, Elena Milashina, who reported the story from Vladikavkaz and Beslan, the North Ossetian commission has reached conclusions echoing testimony given by former hostages at the Kulaev trial and expert analysis, both of which contradict the official version of events and the conclusions reached by Torshin’s commission. For example, according to Milashina, the North Ossetian commission has concluded that “[f]rom the testimony of hostages and witnesses one can conclude that the explosions in the gym were a surprise to the [hostage takers] themselves. There is also no small number of witnesses who say that the explosions in the gymnasium were provoked from the outside.”

The North Ossetian commission, Milashina wrote, has also concluded that while the idea of bringing then Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov and his envoy Akhmed Zakaev to Beslan to negotiate with the hostage takers came up too late, “the possible appearance in Beslan of Maskhadov and Zakaev presented the Kremlin with a difficult choice: to allow the rescue of the hostages and thereby legalize the figure of Maskhadov and allow the possible political settlement of the Chechen problem.” An “ad libbed storming” of the school made it possible to avoid that outcome. This echoes what Kesaev told Vremya novostei in an interview published in June, in which he suggested it was possible that the Russian authorities provoked a violent denouement to the hostage crisis in order to prevent Maskhadov from arriving on the scene to help resolve it. Kesaev told the newspaper that Maskhadov, through Zakaev, had “promised and guaranteed” then North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov that he would come to Beslan by the evening of September 3 [2004]. “You have the impression that as soon as the likelihood of Maskhadov’s appearance arose,” Kesaev was asked, “the assault began?” He answered affirmatively, saying “I admit that [possibility]” (see Chechnya Weekly, June 30).

Still, following the publication of the Novaya gazeta article, Kesaev released a statement condemning it. “A publication putatively constituting a comparative analysis of the final reports of the North Ossetian and federal commissions arouses not simply bewilderment, but direct indignation,” Kesaev said in the statement, newsru.com reported on September 3. “In the pursuit of sensations, the editors offered their readers an elementary provocation, inasmuch as the report of the North Ossetian commission does not yet exist. In addition, even in the available material, the commission does not name the names, events and facts mentioned in the newspaper. Circulating the fantasies of its author, the newspaper violates the law on mass media, not even mentioning the moral side of this whole story, which touches on the fate and feelings of the victims.”

Even so, that Kesaev remains highly critical of the official handling of the Beslan tragedy was evident in an interview that gazeta.ru published on September 1. In the interview, he criticized the authorities for, among other things, insisting that the Beslan terrorists had not presented specific demands. “Of course they had specific demands, and these were made known by means of a note which was passed over and which constitutes material evidence,” Kesaev told the website. “In it, calls were made for the troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya. I cannot quite understand why they spent a long time trying to convince us that there were no demands. This is not only disconcerting but it also enables us to judge that the people involved in the hostage rescue operation were thinking more about their own departmental interests than about the interests of the state as a whole or the individuals who had been taken hostage.”

Kesaev told gazeta.ru that he doubted the accuracy of the official figure of 32 for the number of terrorists involved in the Beslan hostage taking. He also said it will not be possible to determine the source of the first explosion in the school because “the investigation was organized in such a way that there was no detailed inspection of the scene. On September 4 [2004], the school was not even simply cordoned off: There were pilgrims there, and sightseers, and friends and relatives of the dead,” he said. “What is more, trash from the school’s territory was gathered up by a bulldozer and transported to the dump. Therefore we have had no thorough inspection of the scene, as a result of which it would have been possible to carry out the necessary expert appraisals and try to establish the cause of the explosion.”

Ultimately, Kasaev said, responsibility for the large number of hostages killed rests with the security agencies. “It goes without saying that the blame for such a number of people killed lies with those who carried out the operation,” he told gazeta.ru. “Excuse me, but if someone ventures to determine the percentage of success or failure for the operation by claiming that if there were 1,000-plus hostages and only 331 were killed, then it can be regarded as successful, then I cannot understand such logic. The regime, including the security structures, is to blame, above all, for the fact that the school was seized, and this blame is naturally exacerbated by the way the operation was carried out. I say this while not denying the individual heroism of individual rescue workers. But it is incomprehensible, to put it mildly, not to assume responsibility for the fact that most of the hostages—more than 160 people—died beneath the roof which collapsed.”