After Beslan: A Czech View

It’s been a full week now since the bloodbath at Middle School #1 in Beslan, and what effects has that incident had so far? OK, there have been some firings of officials in charge of security in North Ossetia, and indeed of the entire North Ossetian regional government save the top guy, President Alexander Dzasokhov. (Here’s a good summary of those developments – from Australia no less!) And after first refusing any public inquiry into the affair, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday relented, so that the Russian Senate will start its investigation later on this month.

Still, deeper questions remain, which even those Senators might be hesitant to broach. Like: What can Russia do to prevent such massacres happening again? What connection does it all have to the ongoing violence in Chechenya, and what implications does it have for that struggle? Josef Pazderka comes up with some interesting observations about this incident’s aftermath in his piece (What Changes After Breslan) in the Czech opinion-weekly Respekt.

First of all, there’s little Russia can do, in the short term at least, to ensure that such attacks cannot happen again. Indeed, the entire hostage-taking was marred throughout with enormous incompetence, starting with those folks to whom history and popular legend usually ascribe such sinister efficiency, namely the Russian intelligence services (here mainly the FSB, which has been known through most of the recent past as the KGB). How could such an attack happen without their foreknowledge? Once underway, how could those 30+ armed attackers make their way in their vehicle to their target through all the borders and checkpoints? Then it was supposedly rifle fire from relatives of the hostages milling around the security perimeter that triggered the final shoot-out. Plus the exact number of attackers is still not known, nor whether some of them managed to escape. And so on. One thing that is for sure, Pazderka notes, is that Putin has been shown up in his claim, made while running to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russian President in 1999, that he is the one qualified to bring peace and security to Russia by dealing with the troubles in the Northern Caucasus.


Ah yes: Was this incident a product of the entire Northern Caucasus or just Chechenya – a regional subset? Putin had initially insisted on there being “international terrorist” elements involved in the assault on the school, with ties to al-Qaeda and the like. When such claims appeared doubtful from the statements of surviving hostages, much of the press was content to simply call the attackers “Chechens,” but that is also not entirely accurate. Pazderka notes that only six of the around thirty-one attackers were of Chechen nationality, with the rest filled from elsewhere in the Northern Caucasus, along with one Russian. The attackers did align themselves to the Chechen cause with the demand they finally made for Russian withdrawal from there (they also wanted the release of those held for a previous attack in Ingushetia), but Pazderka agrees that these demands were more like an afterthought: the attackers had really come to Beslan to die, in the cause of sowing fear and instability.

The varied-but-not-varied nationalities of the attackers (i.e. not just Chechen, but otherwise mostly from the North Caucasus) according to Pazderka points to the worrying phenomenon that it’s not just in Chechenya but in fact throughout that region that terrorist cells have formed, available at any moment to be mobilized and sent into action. And when they are sent into action, North Ossetia will continue to be a likely target. That region is different from the others in the Northern Caucasus, first of all in being the only one with a Christian cultural tradition (the others are Muslim), and also because it is seen as the most pro-Russian: the Russian Army headquarters for the Northern Caucasus is there, for example. So if you can’t cover the distance to Moscow or St. Petersburg to hit some real Russian targets, North Ossetia is in the immediate neighborhood and will do almost as well. What’s more, there is specific bad feeling between North Ossetia and her neighbor Ingushetia, whom the former has always seen as a source of bandits and terrorists. That closing of the borders ordered by Putin after the Beslan incident was over was not so much to prevent terrorist escape, reports Pazderka, as it was to head off North Ossetians from going over to do a bit of ethnic cleansing of their own in revenge. After all, this happened already (of the Ingushetians, at the hands of the North Ossetians) for a few days back in October, 1992, in the heady period just after the Soviet Union’s collapse; Russian federal forces had to intervene.


So the problem encompasses the entire North Caucasus. Ultimately, though, it is the continuing violent struggle in Chechenya that provides fuel for this fire. Outside observers are wrong when they continue to regard this as a political problem, Pazderka declares, for the central political question is settled. No matter what, Chechen will remain in the Russian Federation; the history of Russian military involvement there, having lasted now for ten years, and the iron-clad determination of Vladimir Putin will see to that.

Rather, Chechenya is now more of an economic question, for it remains a poor, deeply-corrupt society where one practically has to descend into illegality (e.g. the black market, drug smuggling) just to make ends meet. Pazderka goes so far to advocate a “winning hearts and minds” approach: Give Chechenya a legitimate government, he says (but how that is consistent with a government that at the same time presumably does not reflect the wish of Chechens for independence he does not explain). Give it some investment (“from Moscow,” he adds – and indeed, who else would want to invest there?); give it a spirit of optimism and moving ahead. That is the only way to head off future atrocities such as occurred at Beslan.

Those prescription might strike readers as rather over-optimistic, as they do myself. Perhaps Pazderka’s piece ultimately – and unwittingly – serves to underline how there really are no good solutions to the problem of Chechenya. Indeed, it’s also clear from his treatment how much the tides of hate and recrimination spill over from just Chechenya to most of the neighboring North Causasus region. Not only might there be no solution, there might also be no way to keep the rebellious cancer isolated from the rest of the Northern Caucasus – possibly not even from North Ossetia, in view of the mounting anger there over the way the local government and Moscow mishandled the crisis.

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