In an article headlined “Silence of Political Elite Is Deafening,” the Moscow Times today (September 10) notes that much of Russia’s political elite has “kept painfully quiet” about the Beslan school tragedy — a function of its fear of “antagonizing the Kremlin,” as Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, told the paper. Still, liberal critics of President Vladimir Putin are blaming him for moving in a more authoritarian direction while failing to deliver on his promises to impose order in the country and defeat Chechen insurgents (see EDM, September 7). But commentators on the other side of the argument have also weighed in, some defending Putin for continuing to refuse to negotiate with Chechnya’s separatists and others calling for more authoritarian measures, both vis-a-vis Chechnya and more generally.
One liberal critic of the Kremlin, Sergei Ivanenko, first deputy chairman of the Yabloko party, called Beslan “a turning point.” He explains, “After this, the authorities must realize that the system of power (with the taming of the Duma and the Federation Council and obedient governors) which Putin formed in the name of order and security and was thus supported by many people, in the final analysis resulted in us losing freedom. But neither did we gain security” (Novye izvestiya, September 10).
Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and leader of the Committee 2008: Free Choice democratic opposition group, said Beslan had demonstrated that the Kremlin and Federal Security Service (FSB) are not up to the task of fighting terrorism and protecting Russian citizens. “Today it is clear to everyone that the special services are busy with other, economic functions — sharing Yukos between themselves, pursuing journalists if they don’t do what they’re told — but [there is] not an adequate anti-terrorism policy.” Kasparov said he feared Putin’s promise of tougher measures to fight terrorism could lead to the FSB not only regaining its Soviet-era size and powers, but also becoming “an all-powerful political body which would control every aspect of life in the country” (Ekho Moskvy, September 8).
On the other side of the argument, former Nezavisimaya gazeta editor-in-chief Vitaly Tretyakov strongly defended Putin’s refusal to negotiate with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. According to Tretyakov, Chechen independence would create a “bandit” republic that would “swallow” first Ingushetia and then Dagestan and start a war with North Ossetia. This, he wrote, would be followed by Georgia’s destruction or fragmentation and a war that would “engulf the whole Caucasus and set fire to south and central Russia.” “There no point in even talking to those who do not understand this,” Tretyakov argued. “Or does someone want the Balkanization of the Caucasus and the start of Russia’s second breakup?” Tretyakov did criticize some of those in power, however, writing that in light of the “Beslan holocaust,” Russia’s special services and politicians should be ashamed of the fact that Chechen rebel field commander Shamil Basayev is still alive. “International terrorism and any large-scale terrorism cannot be defeated by democratic methods,” he wrote (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 9).
In a commentary headlined, “In accordance with the laws of war-time,” Mikhail Leontyev enunciated a similar tough line. “The only possibility for establishing order quickly (and when it is a question of war, it has to be done quickly) is, without question, by strengthening the authoritarian component,” he wrote. “There is no other way. And it is possible to do quickly. Unfortunately, I always have the impression that our political leadership — despite what various comrades love to accuse it of — is not ready to take harsh measures. It understands the need for these [measures], but is not ready to take genuinely serious steps. I think that this is now his [Putin’s] constitutional obligation” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 9).
Meanwhile, a poll taken by Yuri Levada’s Analytical Center among Moscow residents over September 7-8 found that 59% of them viewed Putin’s actions in relation to the Beslan hostage seizure positively, while 28% of the respondents disapproved of his actions. A similar poll taken by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) among Muscovites following the October 2002 Moscow theater siege found that 85% approved of Putin’s actions while 10 % disapproved of them. This time, 52% of the Muscovites polled said they approved of the special services’ actions in relation to Beslan (82% in 2002) while 38% said they disapproved (13% in 2002). Seventy-seven percent of those polled this time said they do not believe the FSB and Interior Ministry will be able to prevent future terrorist attacks (52% in 2002). In addition, only 14% of those polled this time said they believed media reports about terrorist acts were full and accurate, down from 41% after the October 2002 theater siege
However, 46% of the Muscovites polled following the Beslan hostage seizure said they are ready to give the law-enforcement organs anti-terrorism powers that could limit civil rights, while 45% said they were against granting them such powers (Kommersant, September 10).