No Compromise

Article excerpt

The Moscow hostage crisis, when hundreds of theatregoers were held by a group demanding Russian troops leave Chechnya, has raised many questions. Were the anti-terror tactics that led to the gassing and death of many innocent people justified? What role did the media play, and is force the only answer for Chechnya? Above all, what can we learn about our new partners in the Kremlin?

INTERNATIONAL COVERAGE OF the hostage crisis has focused principally on two aspects of this tragic episode. The first was the direct human dimension. The fanaticism of the Chechens, the appalling plight of the hostages, the spectacular counter-terrorist operation, and finally the sight of relatives being denied access and information about their loved ones - all these elements combined to create an extraordinary human drama.

The second, more political, aspect centred on President Vladimir Putin and the implications of the crisis for his personal authority and standing. Has he emerged stronger than ever, the embodiment of the strong but humane leader, or was his carefully nurtured image of smooth political control shattered by the terrorists' seizure of the theatre?

There is a third dimension, however, that has received scant attention: the relationship between the hostage crisis and the state of Russian governance. It is obvious the country has been much transformed since the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991, but we remain vague about the nature and extent of change, where Russia fits in the world, and how it might evolve in the future. The events in Moscow may have been chiefly remarkable for the agonising scene that played out over the four days of October 23-26, but they are also a critical marker of where Russia stands today, both in terms of its own development and in relation to the west.


The first, and most obvious, conclusion from Putin's handling of the crisis is that authority and strength continue to be indispensable qualities in Russian political culture. There was never any possibility that the government would negotiate, and this was a reality understood from the outset by all concerned authorities, hostage takers and the public. A speedy, forceful resolution was therefore not only viewed as a legitimate response, but as the only response.

Equally, there was general recognition and acceptance that a counter-terrorist operation would be very bloody indeed. This meant that the death toll - some one hundred and twenty eight hostages out of a total of around eight hundred and fifty -- was considered an outstanding result, including by some of the hostages who believed they would have all been killed had the authorities not acted so decisively.

The issue goes beyond mere numerical calculation. Even if most - or perhaps all - of the hostages had died, the government's response would still have been seen as the only appropriate one. Clearly, it wanted to save as many civilian lives as possible. But following through on principle - no compromise with terrorists - was always going to be more important than human life.

Lest we forget, we are speaking of a nation whose historical experience has been conditioned by almost unimaginable human suffering and loss. This helps explain, incidentally, why the news that nearly all the hostages had died from gas used by the special forces changed very little. What counted was the outcome, not the means used to achieve it.


One of the most striking images, especially to a western audience, was that of relatives desperately seeking information about the hostages in the days after the assault. Why, it was asked, were they denied the most common decencies when they had already suffered so much? Although the authorities attempted to justify the quarantining of the hostages on security grounds - the fear that some Chechen fighters were masquerading as freed hostages - the real reasons were systemic. …