One year after thirty-two militants from the Caucasus region seized a school full of hostages in Beslan, a town in Northern Ossetia, the security situation in the region remains “out of control” and violence may spread further, says Aslan Doukaev, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s North Caucasus Service. He discusses Russia’s bungling of the Beslan massacre, its ongoing war in Chechnya, and the impact of both on U.S.-Russian relations.
What’s the mood in Russia one year after the Beslan tragedy? Are Russians blaming the authorities or the hostage-takers?
The Russians, in general, seem to approve the government’s actions in Beslan, but at the same time, they believe they don’t know the whole truth. Of course, those who suffered from that attack—the parents of those children and loved ones—are clearly outraged at how the government handled the whole situation and are demanding the truth. The government is not telling them everything. On [September 2], a group of mothers of those who died are going to Moscow to talk to President [Vladimir] Putin, and I believe they’ll demand some answers there.
What’s Putin likely to tell them?
It’s very difficult to say. Putin always refuses to comment and give his assessment of what happened. I believe he’ll try to justify what the Russian secret services and police did there. But I don’t really think the mothers are going to be satisfied with those answers.
What’s their chief complaint: The cover-up or the crime? Do these mothers believe the Russian forces were the ones doing the actual shooting?
They complain about several things. First, the secrecy that surrounded the whole operation. Second, they were told during the hostage crisis that no force would be used to free the hostages. And the government reneged on its promise. Then, a lot of lies have been told; for example, what kinds of weapons have been used. There’s a lot of evidence the troops that stormed the building used tanks, helicopters, and flame-throwers. And what the mothers are saying is: “We want to know how our children died.” That’s what the government is failing to tell them.
Has the Kremlin’s handling of Beslan hurt Putin’s popularity?
I don’t really think so. He’s got an image as a very tough leader and this is something that is appreciated in Russian culture. So I don’t believe his popularity depends on the way he handles situations like Beslan.
Putin is reported to have used the Beslan massacre to rein in Russia’s regional governors. Was this the case?
Beslan was a formal pretext for scrapping regional elections. Nobody believes that appointed governors can handle terrorism and separatism better than elected ones. The real reason is Putin’s attempt to exert tighter political control over the regions and the whole country.
Also, it’s rumored the Beslan attackers bribed their way past security guards. What’s been done to prevent this from occurring again?
I’m not aware of any particular steps to curb corruption among Russian police. The situation is, in many ways, the same. I’m not surprised these accusations surfaced because you can bribe almost anyone there. There are lots of checkpoints in and around Chechnya. All you have to do is put around ten rubles [less than a dollar] into your passport and you’re allowed through. Chechen field commanders boast they can bribe their way anywhere, even to Moscow. You can bribe anyone if you know the right price.
So then are future Beslan-type attacks possible?
We can’t rule out that possibility. In his recent interviews, the guy who ordered the attack, [Chechen militant leader] Shamil Basayev, actually says he hasn’t renounced terrorism; so attacks like that can theoretically happen.
What was the ethnic makeup of the Beslan attackers?
There were a lot of non-Chechens there [all but one of whom were reportedly killed during the siege]. Actually, Chechens were the minority. The majority were ethnic Ingush, who are ethnic cousins of the Chechens. There were only three or four Chechens. The Russian government also said some foreign mercenaries were in that particular group and released a photograph of one person who looked Middle Eastern, but it never released names or identities of those people.
Has the security situation in the region improved one year after Beslan?
No. On the contrary, it’s getting worse. We are seeing a spate of attacks in Dagestan [a province bordering Chechnya], where dozens of people have died, and occasional clashes in neighboring Russian republics like Ingushetia. The attacks are mainly perpetuated by underground groups that oppose the local authorities and organize explosions, attack police cars, etc. So the situation remains pretty dire with no signs of improvement whatsoever.
What’s Russia’s modus operandi in Dagestan versus Chechnya?
There are two main Islamic insurgency groups there—one is Shariat, the other is Jennet—that are behind a number of recent attacks aimed at mostly government officials, police, and the Russian military. There were several clashes as well in the capital of Dagestan. The situation is getting somewhat out of control there, and the attacks are getting more and more frequent.
Is there evidence of human-rights abuses?
There’s a very unpopular government in power [in Dagestan]. The current leader [Magomedali Magomedov] has been in power, I believe, for the past twenty years. It’s a very corrupt government, police brutality is quite rampant, and we have credible reports police are abusing people in detention.
Where does the war in Chechnya stand?
It’s still raging on. [Russians are] kind of getting used to it. There’s still heavy fighting going on, especially in the south of Chechnya. The war is the main catalyst for instability in the whole region, and I believe unless this problem has been sorted out some way, instability is going to spread to neighboring republics.
What do Russians think of the war in Chechnya?
Public opinion is firmly for a political solution to the conflict. I’ve seen several polls recently showing that more than 60 percent [of Russians] are calling for an end of the war. But the problem is the Russian government has been unwilling to seek a political solution to the conflict. It seems to be relying solely on the use of force, which causes [further Chechen] resistance and a vicious circle that nobody can break now.
Is there danger of the Chechen conflict spreading further?
The war has been spreading for maybe a couple of years now. You remember the attack at the Dubrovka Theater [when some 140 hostages died after Russian authorities pumped a narcotic gas into the building] in Moscow three years ago. So it’s no longer contained to Chechnya. The Chechen resistance is organizing so-called fronts—the Caucasian fronts—[to be] armed groups subordinate to the Chechen leadership; it’s clearly no longer simply a Chechen conflict.
It seems the Russian authorities haven’t learned their lesson from the Kursk submarine tragedy, the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis, and now Beslan, which were all public-relations disasters for the Kremlin.
I don’t really remember any lessons learned by the Russian government, frankly, [and] I’ve lived in Russia more than thirty years. There are several lessons that could be learned from the Beslan crisis, and not only for the Russian government but also for the Chechen resistance. For example, [the Chechen militants] clearly damaged their cause and gave an opportunity for the Russian government to brand them as terrorists, like al-Qaeda or whatever. But the Russian government should have learned its lesson too, that the war is spreading. It’s no longer confined to Chechnya but includes Dagestan, Northern Ossetia, and Ingushetia. And also, the international community should have learned its lesson, but nobody seems to have learned anything from the Beslan crisis.
How can the international community become more involved?
It should pay more attention to that area; first, because of the terrorism issue, and second, because the situation is getting out of control in many ways. There are always ways to influence the situation. Chechnya is bordering on Georgia, and there’s an American military presence in Georgia. But Georgians are in a very peculiar situation because of the sizable Chechen community in Georgia. Russians have been accusing Georgians of harboring Chechen insurgents, so Georgians feel uncomfortable sitting next to a belligerent Russia and won’t interfere [in the Chechen conflict].
What role can the U.S. government play?
International terrorism cannot be the internal matter of one country. And that’s a point the U.S.government could raise with the Kremlin. Clearly, the United States could pressure the Kremlin to seek a political solution to these problems, but though the White House and State Department have been insisting on this, their statements should be matched by actions.