Putin suggests plan to repair 'internal weakness'

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Flags across Russia were lowered to half mast yesterday in preparation for the two days of national mourning decreed by President Vladimir Putin to commemorate the victims of the Beslan school siege.

Flags across Russia were lowered to half mast yesterday in preparation for the two days of national mourning decreed by President Vladimir Putin to commemorate the victims of the Beslan school siege.

Church-goers heard special prayers expressing sorrow and calling on Russians to refrain from vengeance. In St Petersburg, activists from the President's United Russia party handed out flyers summoning people to a protest this afternoon. "Let us join the President in saying 'no' to terror," the leaflets said, in what appeared to be an early effort by Mr Putin to mobilise his own support and deflect condemnation of the effort to rescue the hostages.

How successful this exercise will be remains unclear. Mr Putin's threefold drive to overcome the impression of Kremlin impotence - his flying visit to North Ossetia in the early hours of Saturday to meet the injured and bereaved, his sharp instructions to the local military to seal the region's borders, and his grave televised address to the nation that evening - seemed to have little lasting impact when yesterday's news broadcasts began with emotional reports of the first funerals in Beslan.

Footage of an unshaven and heavily guarded man, described by a top prosecutor as a member of the Chechen rebel group behind the hostage-taking, was also shown on Russian television. The man, dressed in a dirty black shirt, looked and spoke like a native of one of Russia's North Caucasus regions, which include Chechnya and North Ossetia. "I did not shoot. I swear by Allah I did not shoot," said the handcuffed man.

But Mr Putin's address raised almost as many questions as it answered. The widespread expectation had been that he would express heartfelt regrets and condolences to the families of the dead and injured and then pledge never to give in to terrorists, which he did. In a surprise to many, however, he ranged more widely than this, provoking fevered discussion about what he meant among those who might be affected.

Rather than focus on Chechnya specifically and threaten direct reprisals against the presumed terrorist groups, he spoke about Russia as a target of global terrorism. Ever since the attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, Mr Putin has sought to place terrorist acts by Chechen militants against Russian civilians in a similar category, and so defend himself against Western criticism of Russian conduct in Chechnya. To an extent, this tactic has worked.

In his address at the weekend, however, Mr Putin took this charge into another dimension by claiming that the siege at Beslan was "an all-out attack" on Russia and a "direct intervention of international terror against Russia", implying that Russia was beset by external dangers. His only immediate response, however, was to announce the sealing of North Ossetia's borders.

The second surprise was Mr Putin's depiction of Russia not as a strong nation bent on avenging itself for the North Ossetia deaths, but as a desperately weakened country, afflicted by "intense internal conflicts and inter-ethnic contradictions" that in Soviet times were "harshly suppressed by the prevailing ideology".

Then he made this assessment: "We have failed to pay due attention to questions of defence and security, we have allowed corruption to tarnish the judiciary and law and order."

One conclusion being drawn yesterday, with hope or fear depending on who was speaking, was that Mr Putin intended to use the catastrophic loss of life at Beslan and the demonstrably ill-co-ordinated rescue operation as an opportunity to embark on thorough and long-term reform of all the sectors he mentioned: the military and security establishments, and the judiciary.

These three sectors have, for different reasons, adapted least to post-Soviet Russia and constitute a barrier to change elsewhere. The parlous state of the judiciary, with often poorly qualified and corrupt staff, is cited as a main reason why Russians and foreigners alike are discouraged from investing for the future. The emergency services are poorly co-ordinated and hopelessly short of money, while the military, especially what remains of the huge Soviet conscript army, presents the greatest challenge. The transition to a fully professional military, which Mr Putin is believed to favour, has been rejected several times, not least by the military itself, which raises the spectre of large numbers of armed and unemployed young men roaming the country. As Mr Putin said in his address, just securing Russia's borders properly will "take many years and cost billions of roubles". It will also take fierce determination.

Mr Putin's failure to defend the performance of the military and security services at Beslan suggests that he might have decided to take the risk.