Russia after Beslan

Article excerpt

Introduction

American coverage of the monstrous hostage-taking at Beslan's School No. 1 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia and the ensuing controversy over President Vladimir Putin's consolidation of power in ostensible response to the terrorist threat was hampered by many factors, not the least of which has been our election-season anxiety about the health of our own democracy. The superficial correspondences arc everywhere: between what many consider to be Putin's reckless and unwinnable war of choice in Chechnya and President Bush's reckless war of choice and thus-far-unwinnable peace in Iraq; between Putin's claims that his war is a vital part of the fight against international terrorism, while it has in fact spurred radical Islamism and been the occasion for a wave of horrific terrorist acts, and Bush's identical claims about the war in Iraq, while jihadists from throughout the Arab world pour over Iraqi borders and the death toll mounts more steeply every month; between Putin's use of undemocratic and arguably anticonstitutional measures in the name of making Russia safer and the Bush administration's use of the same while obvious and easily implemented antiterrorist measures have yet to be taken; the list goes on.

But attention to the superficial correspondences in the absence of a clear understanding of Russia's political structure and recent history only further obscures the already complex constellation of issues surrounding the attack. Interpreting antidemocratic moves on Putin's part as deviations from the standards of American liberal democracy is misguided, if not meaningless. The Yeltsin era brought certain aspects of Russian society closer to the American experience than they ever had been. But it was also radically destabilizing, after seven decades of Communist dictatorship, and left many Russians yearning for precisely the stability that Putin represents-so successfully that his popularity remains high after four years of terrorist attacks that have left nearly 1,000 dead.

Unfortunately, the hurricane of opinion-mongering in the op-ed pages of major American newspapers and the live feeds from cable news shows cut off a careful consideration of some very basic questions-What precisely happened in Beslan? How is it related to Chechnya? By what standards do we judge Putin's response?-almost before it could begin. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National security Advisor to President Carter, authored an editorial comparing Putin to Mussolini. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal quoted Lenin on the true nature of dictatorship as though it were quoting Putin. Cautiously critical remarks from secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush in the weeks following the attack ("I've got a good relation with Vladimir. . . . Vladimir's going to have to make some hard choices," Bush said in the first presidential debate) led to intimations of "the new cold war." The initial volley of anti-Kremlin editorials led to a return volley attacking them for their naivete and stridency-frequently in terms just as naive and tones just as strident. Add to this the traditional limitations of American coverage of Russia in the post-Soviet era-lack of clear, sharp story focus, lack of column inches, lack of public interest-and the nonspecialist observer in America has been left with few places to turn.

During the rancorous first presidential debate in late September, there was one point of absolute accord between George W. Bush and John Kerry: the gravest threat that faces the United States today is the threat of nuclear terrorism. The terrorists who seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002-an attack organized by the same man who has claimed responsibility for the attack in Beslan-"reportedly considered seizing [Russia's] Kurchatov Institute instead-a site with enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for dozens of nuclear weapons."1 Significantly, only hours after terrorists seized School No. …