Iron Fist Has Failed
By John Kampfner
04 September , 2004
images of children being carried naked and covered in blood from Middle
School 1 in Beslan, beamed live on the main TV networks in Russia, are
traumatising the nation. Russians had become used to terrorist attacks.
They had become grimly immune to them as they entrusted their president,
Vladimir Putin, with a carte blanche in his military response. But it
is the nature of this particular attack - the focus on tiny babies in
one of the poorest parts of the country - that makes this different.
This truly is Russia's 9/11.
But after the shock, after the anger and the grieving for those who
have died, what then? The immediate response is despondency and despair.
Putin's iron fist has got nowhere. This was a man who promised to restore
order after what his supporters call the "chaos" of the Yeltsin
years, including Chechnya. After two military invasions, thousands dead,
rigged elections and countless bomb attacks in Moscow and the Caucasus,
he appears further away than ever from victory in his own war on terror.
insisted that Chechnya was a purely domestic issue. Now he appears to
be changing tack, talking of the international nature of the threat.
Beslan is now officially listed as part of the same Islamist assault
on "civilised" values that led to the attacks on Twin Towers
in New York and Atocha station in Madrid.
The pro-Putin political
class (it is quite hard nowadays to find many people who publicly express
differing views) is also expressing increasing anger at what it regards
as the west's double standards. Russia gave the United States unequivocal
support in September 2001, so why is the west not doing the same in
"It is time
to put an end to this ambiguity in western minds, which makes the devil
of terrorism turn into a rough, but generally nice guy, as soon as he
steps from the outside world into Chechnya?" writes political commentator
In the midst of
the crisis, Putin received what he needed from the United Nations -
a blanket condemnation of the terrorists, without any link to Russian
human rights abuses in Chechnya. As he seeks to assert his own authority,
Putin will ensure he reinforces that message to other world leaders.
But the likes of
George Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac also have an opportunity
now, to impress upon Putin the need not just to improve security - and
anyone who has had dealings with Russian road blocks or airport staff
knows how easy it is to slip some cash to be waved through - but also
to find political interlocutors, not puppets, in Chechnya. Given the
public mood here that will not be easy. And even if talks began, even
if international organisations such as the UN or EU became involved,
there is no guarantee that the terror would abate. There is no shortage
of individual Chechens who are willing to blow themselves up, and as
many Russians with them, to avenge what they see as more than a decade
of brutalism directed by the Kremlin.
After the simultaneous
plane destructions and the bomb outside Atocha station in Madrid metro
station, the "normalisation" that Putin likes to profess is
in tatters. Politicians I have spoken to here are preparing for more
attacks to follow Beslan. Their worst predictions are for a strike on
a nuclear plant.
Military and police
reinforcements have been ordered, partly to deter, partly to reassure,
although they are unlikely to do much of both. Questions are raised
about Putin's future, only to dissipate with the realisation that for
the foreseeable future there is no alternative. The more immediate question
in the minds of ordinary people is whether they and their children can
get through the next day without bloodshed.
· John Kampfner
is political editor of the New Statesman and a former Moscow correspondent