The mass murderers who seized the school in Beslan, Russia, in September committed one of the most heinous acts of terrorism in world history. Other murderers have killed children, and other terrorists have slaughtered more people, but it is hard to imagine anyone purposely killing this many innocent children in one attack. Russian president Vladimir Putin is most certainly right when he declares that he will not give in to the demands of these killers. Citizens deserve protection, and their killers deserve unflinching justice.
However, Putin and the state he has constructed in Russia do not seem up to the task of providing either. The horrors of Beslan were made still worse by the ineffective way in which the government responded. In the wake of that tragic week, Putin needs to reevaluate not only his strategy for fighting terrorism but also his plan for building a strong and effective state. That’s what he promised the Russian people when he became president in 2000. Having endured a decade of anarchy, economic uncertainty, and a wave of terrorist attacks in the fall of 1999, most Russians applauded that mission. The vacuum that had been created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had to be filled. As a sober-minded, tough-sounding former KGB officer, Putin seemed to many Russians like the man for the job.
But Putin’s strategy for building such a state focused primarily on eliminating checks and balances on presidential power, not on strengthening the effectiveness of state institutions. Putin wrongly equated democracy with weakness and centralized authority with powerful rule. He has undermined every independent source of political power, starting with the independent national media, then moving on to rein in regional executives, then striking out at Russia’s super-rich. He emasculated the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. His government’s successful electoral campaign in December 2003 transformed the lower house, the State Duma, into a rubber stamp for Kremlin policies. Independent political parties and institutions of civil society have also been pushed to the margins of Russian political life.
Each of Putin’s political changes increased the power of the Kremlin and decreased the power of other political actors and institutions. The restructuring has not produced a more effective state but instead a weak, corrupt, and unaccountable regime: authoritarianism without authority. It is also now a regime with only one real decision maker—Putin—in a country too big and too complex for one man to handle. This state was on display in Beslan.
Five years of Putin’s “reforms” have not produced better police, better intelligence services, or better armed forces. Not only did those ministries fail to prevent the murderers from seizing Beslan School No. 1, but they have not learned from earlier attacks. Whereas the terrorists in Beslan brought gas masks with them—evidence that they had learned from the last hostage crisis in October 2002, which ended when the authorities flooded a Moscow theater with a lethal gas—the Russian state seemed plagued by old habits: Lines of authority among Russian officials were unclear, the strategy for responding fuzzy (negotiate or not? storm the school or not?). In the chaos, armed civilians accidentally shot several members of Russia’s special forces. The soldiers who eventually stormed the school performed heroically. Their bosses did not.
Beslan is the most horrific terrorist attack in Russia but not the first. The list of victims is as long as it is shocking. More than 300 died in apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in the fall of 1999; 120 hostages died in the standoff at the Moscow theater; more than 270 people, including the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, died in eight incidents between December 2002 and May 2004. In June, 92 were killed at a police station. On August 24 two passenger jets exploded, killing 89, and 10 more died on August 31 when a suicide bomber struck outside a subway station in Moscow.
Against this backdrop of carnage, Russians understandably doubt the effectiveness of their security forces in carrying out a war on terrorism. Instead of a strong police force, Russians see a corrupt one that is on display every day to the Russian driver who must pay bribes to street cops or the Russian store owner who must buy off court officials to remain in business. That corruption played a corrosive role in the school crisis. Now reports from Beslan suggest that a local police official aided the terrorists. Putin’s move to centralize Russian institutions has done little to reduce graft and instead has impaired traditional instruments for battling corruption, such as an independent media and genuine opposition political parties.
The new regime has produced loyal but impotent regional authorities. In Beslan, everyone seemed afraid to act, as if waiting for the tsar from Moscow to arrive and take charge. Former Ingushetian president Ruslan Aushev, the self-appointed mediator who entered the school and then returned with two dozen freed children and women, was the only local leader who proved willing to act decisively and independently to try to save lives. The only local leader to demonstrate leadership and authority, Aushev was pushed out of power by Moscow for being too independent.
Putin’s regime has produced a media that feared to report real news about Beslan on the television airwaves, reported lies about the number of hostages in the school and the ethnicity of the terrorists, and have done little to stimulate public discussion about the state’s effectiveness in responding to the crisis. In response to Beslan, the print media have shown some signs of revival, but when Izvestia tried to ask questions about the state’s failures, the newspaper’s editor was fired.
Putin’s regime is also too rigid and centralized to learn. Russian citizens have described Beslan as their own September 11, but until now neither the Russian parliament nor any other body has tried to convene an independent investigative group similar to the 9/11 Commission in the United States. There has been little effort to retrieve evidence. The ruins of the apartment buildings were quickly bulldozed after the 1999 bombings. There was no sign that lessons were learned from the theater hostage crisis. The Beslan school was quickly abandoned by authorities and occupied by mourners.
In a positive development, the chairman of the Federation Council has announced plans for a parliamentary investigation. But with both houses of parliament dominated by Kremlin loyalists, it is hard to be optimistic about the results.
Putin’s approach to Chechnya shows little sign of evolution. For the Russian president, all Chechen resistance groups are terrorists and a military response is the only strategy available for addressing the conflict. Yet, in fact, Russian forces are fighting several groups with different political objectives.
Some Chechen groups have allied with al Qaeda and joined the jihad against Western civilization. Many other Chechen opponents of Russia’s military operation inside Chechnya, including most government officials in power before Russia’s second invasion in 1999, have unequivocally denounced the Beslan attack. They understand that such actions do not serve the interests of the Chechen people. They are nationalists, ready to begin negotiations with authorities in Moscow, and they do not exclude the possibility of some special arrangement about Chechen sovereignty even within the formal borders of the Russian Federation. They could become, over time, allies of Moscow in fighting the kind of terrorists who attacked Beslan’s children. To date, however, Putin has refused to engage in a dialogue with anyone inside Chechnya except his handpicked puppets, and the political system he now heads offers few ways to press him to rethink his policy.
Over the last four years, Putin’s advisers have explained the rollback of democratic practices as part of a trade—less freedom for more security. But Putin has not delivered on his part of this deal, as Russians now have less freedom but no more security. Polls that I co-commissioned in Russia last spring already showed signs of discontent with Putin’s policies (though not with the man himself). When asked how to proceed in Chechnya, 55 percent of our respondents advocated negotiations, while only 36 percent recommended a continuation of the war. In Putin’s regime, however, voter attitudes do not matter much because Russia now lacks the democratic institutions that can translate citizen preferences into government action.
The Beslan massacre should mark a turning point in the future development of Russia’s political regime. Which way Putin and Russian society will turn, however, remains uncertain. One response would be to kindle new political forces outside the state, followed by pluralistic reforms inside the state. Already, Russian citizens have rallied in the streets to denounce terrorism—and to demand more accountability from their government, as have some courageous print journalists. Some of Putin’s candid remarks about the weakness of the Russian state suggest that he is not satisfied with his past strategy of state building.
However, Beslan has produced criticism from the right as well. Some nationalist leaders in parliament have demanded the government’s resignation, and still others have called for a more autocratic regime capable of truly cracking down on terrorists. As commentator Mikhail Leontiev wrote, “Boosting the authoritarian component is the only means to restore order—and when the nation is at war, it should be done fast. This is the only way.” For the first time, these hard-liners are implicitly suggesting that Putin has been too soft, too lenient, and—hard to believe—too indecisive.
Putin appears to agree. On September 13, he announced his plans for further centralizing political power in Russia, floating the idea that governors should be appointed, rather than elected, and that all, not just half, of Duma members should be chosen through proportional representation (PR). Appointed governors obviously will be more subservient to the president than elected regional leaders. The proposed electoral law reform for the Duma will eliminate the 225 seats that had previously been selected in individual districts. Roughly half of those elected in these districts in the last election were loyal to the Kremlin, but the other half had some autonomy. Under the new system, Putin’s party, United Russia, and its allies will be able to extend their domination of the lower house, especially since the threshold for winning seats through PR has been already raised to 7 percent.
In the light of these new developments, the United States must redouble its efforts to support Russian democracy. At a minimum, the United States must reverse cuts for democracy assistance in Russia and exchanges between Russians and Americans. Despite Putin’s “reforms,” there are still brave human rights leaders, independent journalists, and educators who are resisting the drift toward authoritarian rule. These are the same voices inside Russia who have been calling for a comprehensive accounting of the government’s actions in Beslan. Now, more than ever, these groups need our moral and material support.