RUSSIA: Chechen war comes to Moscow



MOSCOW — On the evening of October 23, all of Russia's television channels interrupted their broadcasts to report that a group of Chechen fighters had seized the Moscow theatre centre where the musical Nord-Ost was playing. More than 800 people had been taken hostage.

The fighters placed explosives throughout the building, promising to blow themselves up together with their captives. They themselves did not plan to leave the theatre alive. They had only one demand: an end to the war in the northern Caucasus.

For two days, doctors, journalists and public figures were entering the theatre complex. They managed to free most of the children. The Chechen fighters also promised to free the foreigners. But President Vladimir Putin made no announcement concerning peace.

Putin's rule began with a rash of terrorist acts in Moscow, and with a promise to restore order in Russia. For huge numbers of Russian citizens, Putin became the embodiment of dream of a firm, reliable state power. Order and security were needed at any cost. Human rights and freedom of speech were shifted into the background, or were forgotten altogether. Moral standards, interpreted very freely in the Yeltsin era, finally lost all meaning.

The group of fighters who seized the theatre centre in Moscow struck a blow at the very heart of Putin's regime. Putin had promised security, but after three years of his rule, men and women armed to the teeth and wearing Chechen uniform were travelling freely about the Russian capital in jeeps, and seizing hundreds of hostages. Putin had promised order, but his troops and police were displaying complete helplessness.

Formally, one could say that the "anti-terrorist operation" waged in Chechnya for the previous three years had been a total failure. But this would not be correct. No-one had ever had the slightest intention of conducting a "counter-terrorist operation" in Chechnya. Strictly speaking, this was not even a war. Rather, it was a pogrom, brutal and senseless.

The people in the Kremlin had realised long ago that the conflict in Chechnya could not be won. But it could at least be forgotten. It was possible for Russia's leaders to pretend, and to convince everyone else, that the reason the problem was not being solved was because it did not exist.

Reality, however, exacted its revenge on October 23, when the Chechen war came to Moscow. We can condemn the fighters as much as we like, but this will be vulgar hypocrisy unless we point out that in Chechnya the Russian federal army is behaving in far worse fashion than the Chechens who seized the theatre centre.

For three years the federal forces have been kidnapping and murdering Chechens. It is they who have been systematically plundering and destroying peaceful villages. It is they who have terrorised a peaceful population. They are the ones who bear the fundamental responsibility for everything that has happened. If you are looking for terrorists, start with the Kremlin.

Putin's 'brilliant victory'

Before dawn on October 25, Russian special forces detachments took the theatre centre by storm. The fighters were killed. The hostages were carried out of the building unconscious and laid next to the doors like sacks. The Kremlin claimed this as a "brilliant victory".

Unfortunately, the picture of the "brilliant victory" quickly lost its lustre. At first the Russian media reported joyfully that the "enemy" had been wiped out, and that there were no losses among the hostages and the special forces. Then Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov reported that about 30 hostages had died. By midday the figure had reached 67, and by evening the health ministry was officially admitting that "more than 90" were dead.

After this the doctors were forbidden to talk to the press, and the hospitals where the patients had been taken were turned into closed establishments, with access permitted only to representatives of the authorities. At least 100 people were declared to have "vanished without trace" (in a closed building, searched many times by the special forces and rescuers).

By October 26, the number of dead had reached 118, and 300 had vanished. The scale of the losses exceeded the number who had died in the accident on the submarine Kursk.

The crowds of relatives who gathered at the gates of the hospitals were given no information. On orders from the special forces, the doctors did not release the patients who had already recovered. The former hostages were effectively under arrest. Now, however, they were no longer being held by the "enemy" fighters, but by the "friendly" special forces.

The authorities provided no explanations. Only the deputy interior minister, General Vladimir Vasilyev, mentioned in an interview that there was a need for the victims of the terrorists to be subjected to "filtration".

Nor was there any clarity about the losses among the group that had stormed the theatre centre. The interior ministry contradicted the FSB (Federal Security Service, the successor organisation to the KGB). Some officials admitted that special forces troops had been killed, while others continued to insist that all of them were alive.

The government propagandists, who on the morning of October 26 had declared that the operation to save the hostages could be considered a success if the number of dead did not exceed 10%, hurriedly corrected their figures, and by the next day were maintaining that "according to international standards", the acceptable losses could amount to 20%.

Meanwhile, the FSB representative explained to the public that in Britain or Israel it was quite normal practice for all the hostages to die in such operations; only in Russia were the special services prepared to fight for the life of everyone involved.

While some people counted the dead, others searched for enemies. The refugee camps in Ingushetia were blockaded by federal forces. Throughout the whole country a campaign was mounted to expose "accomplices of the terrorists". Dozens of them were found; all without exception were of "southern" appearance and Muslim faith.

Patriotic-minded business people announced on television that they were establishing a foundation to encourage informers, promising as much as a million rubles in cash for each successful denunciation.

Pressure on media

Accompanying the current crisis has been unprecedented pressure by the authorities on the mass media. The television channel Moskoviya, which had broadcast an interview with a hostage who had demanded an end to the Chechnya war, was put off the air. After a warning from the authorities, the radio station Ekho Moskvy, considered to have an opposition slant, began presenting the official version of events.

The Chechen internet site Caucasus-Centre was shut down. Television viewers were inundated with a stream of lies, blatant and vulgar, which in essence did not even try to present themselves as the truth.

The most telling example was the footage, broadcast by the state television channel from the captured building, which showed the dead commander of the fighters lying in a pool of blood and clutching a bottle of brandy. The bottle had not been opened, and even still had the excise markings. It stood precisely positioned amid a scene of general devastation. The impression given was that the fighters had sought to protect it with their own bodies.

The authorities were doing the same as they had been doing for four years in Chechnya: blocking information, lying, and passing off defeat as victory. What they could get away with in the remote Caucasus republic, however, would not work in Moscow, before the gaze of dozens of journalists and thousands of witnesses.

Information seeped out, if not via the newspapers and television, then at least through the internet. On October 26, Russian citizens were told that the attack had been mounted because the fighters had started killing hostages. Armed forces representatives admitted, however, that the attack had been planned in advance, and that the authorities had deliberately provoked the fighters with diverse "leaks" about the forthcoming attack, trying to put them off balance and in the process urging them on to start slaughtering people.

Before a blockade was placed on news from the hospitals, the medical personnel managed to report that among the hostages they had not found people who had died of gunfire wounds.

To judge from everything, the fighters actually had fired a few shots at the hostages, but only after the start of the attack, when people had started to panic, and some were trying to flee.

Gas attack

The authorities were especially proud of a tactical innovation — a gas attack in enclosed premises. What sort of gas had been used, the authorities refused to say. The doctors could only gather that the patients had been "treated" with a nerve gas that had paralysing effects.

The reluctance of the officials to share this information with the doctors is easy to understand. The suspicion arose immediately that the authorities had used poisons banned under international conventions — the very same crime for which the US is justifying its planned war on Iraq.

Representatives of the special forces proudly told the press that "our troops simply entered the hall and shot the sleeping terrorists at point-blank range". There was no other way, the authorities insisted, since the fighters had explosives strapped around them, and could have blown themselves up. But even the official photographs show that by no means all the people shot at point-blank range were wearing these "suicide belts".

Most of the fighters were immediately put out of action by the gas attack, but as it turned out, not all of them. A number were in other areas, and continued to put up resistance for around 40 minutes. During this time someone from among the Chechens could readily have burst into the hall and blown it up, or opened fire on the hostages. But the fighters did not do this.

If the Chechen fighters were not shooting hostages during the night of October 25-26, while the assault led to numerous casualties, does this mean that there was no need whatever to storm the building? There was in fact such a need, but only a political one.

The authorities needed an attack, and large numbers of casualties, so that they would be able to carry on with the war in Chechnya by undermining the growth of anti-war sentiment in society — and in order to prove to the country Putin's firmness.

On the evening before the attack, the Chechen fighters let it be understood that all that was required for the hostages to be released was an unambiguous declaration by Putin that negotiations would begin. If such a declaration had been made, the people in the theatre centre would have stayed alive, not to speak of the dozens of people being killed each week in Chechnya.

For the president, however, such a declaration could have turned into political suicide. The future of his political career was more important to him than the lives of the hostages.

In Russia, the number of supporters of the Chechnya war had been shrinking from month to month. This desire for a peaceful settlement, however, was not expressed in a mass anti-war movement. A society incapable of self-organisation did not pose a threat to the authorities.

The October hostage crisis changed this situation. Large numbers of people who earlier cursed the war in their own kitchens spoke out publicly. Relatives of the hostages set up an anti-war committee.

On the morning after the assault, representatives of the committee declared that they would continue their anti-war activity. The authorities sensed a danger — not from the direction of the fighters, but from that of society.

Urgent measures were required, and they were taken. The recipe was the usual one — a combination of military actions with censorship and propaganda. Immediately after the attack, the television showed the smiling president touring the hospitals and joking. At this very time, dozens of people lay dying in these hospitals after being poisoned with gas on the president's orders. The jokes were not at all funny.

A great deal has been changed by the October crisis, and a great deal more has been clarified. Now, the authorities will never agree to peace, under any circumstances. So long as Putin and his team remain in power, a war will continue in Russia — a civil war.

Over several days, liberal intellectuals appealed to the good sense of the president. They sought to convince him that he would go down in history as a peacemaker and a humanist. It was pointless.

If Putin would not do as they urged, it was precisely because he has the power of reason. He understands the real rules of the game. He knows how the system — not only the political, but also the socio-economic one — is actually organised. The struggle against the "internal enemy" is the main political tactic of the ruling group. It represents this group's main method of preserving its legitimacy and of consolidating society around it.

And most importantly, this struggle is the ruling group's sole method of maintaining the stability of an unjust social system that dooms two-thirds of the population to poverty, and that denies them any chance to improve their lot either now or in the future. Incessant warfare is a means for maintaining social peace.

Putin and his team now have no other road except that of escalating the violence in the Caucasus and of "tightening the screws" throughout Russia. What will come of this? Society has been divided. Some people are rejoicing in the actions of the authorities, while others are in shock. Some are calling for the enemy to be finished off, referring now not so much to the Chechen fighters as to all people of "Caucasian origin", to "blacks", foreigners and dissidents. Others are prepared to struggle for peace. Both moods are making themselves heard on the streets.

The storming of the theatre centre divided Russia into pacifists on one hand, and participants in pogroms on the other. Are the people who declared their anti-war positions during these days prepared to go back meekly to their kitchens, as if nothing has happened? Many will perhaps do so, but not all.

It is obvious, at any rate, that to go down on one's knees and stage a loyal revolt makes no sense at all. One cannot call for peace and at the same time try to placate the authorities. The real political struggle in Russia is still only beginning.

The Chechen fighters who tried to achieve peace through seizing hostages deserve the name of terrorists. The question is, what do we call the Russian authorities, who try to avoid peace with the help of poison gas attacks and censorship?

During the days of the crisis, the same thought came simultaneously into the minds of many Russians: it was not only the 800 people in the theatre centre who were hostages, but all of society was being held hostage by the authorities. And unlike the case with the Chechen fighters, negotiating with terrorists in the Kremlin is impossible.

From Green Left Weekly, November 6, 2002.

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