Sergei Strokan: The Russian people have been taken hostage

Despite the hardliners' grip, there is no security in Russia. One tragedy is followed by another
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The Independent Online

The violent resolution of the siege in Beslan marks the moment of truth for Vladimir Putin's leadership. His rise to power five years ago was built largely on his vow to crush the Chechen rebellion after the devastating apartment bombings in Moscow. Like George Bush or Ariel Sharon he founded his leadership on the strength of a promise to restore law and order, stability and security. Security was our priority. Putin was strong, articulate, handsome and apparently honest - the antithesis of the Yeltsin era which had been marked by corruption, lack of discipline and havoc.

The violent resolution of the siege in Beslan marks the moment of truth for Vladimir Putin's leadership. His rise to power five years ago was built largely on his vow to crush the Chechen rebellion after the devastating apartment bombings in Moscow. Like George Bush or Ariel Sharon he founded his leadership on the strength of a promise to restore law and order, stability and security. Security was our priority. Putin was strong, articulate, handsome and apparently honest - the antithesis of the Yeltsin era which had been marked by corruption, lack of discipline and havoc.

So we made sacrifices. To allow Putin to achieve his goals we stood by as he closed newspapers and shut down liberal political parties. Everything that did not fit into his strategy of security and stability was labelled "anti-government". We were told that all these sacrifices were necessary to allow Russia to make a great leap forward. Like Deng Xiaoping's China, everything would have to be sacrificed for the sake of that greater goal. So now we have government TV where all the news programmes begin with the President's activities. We have a puppet parliament and intellectual dissidents once again leaving for the West. It was no coincidence that it was the independent media which were most critical of the war in Chechnya.

But the phenomenon that most characterises Putin's era is Russia's transformation into what many of us now call the land of the siloviki. Derived from sila which is Russian for power, it translates loosely as hardliners. It describes the influx into the apparatus of senior government of people with backgrounds in the KGB or the military. They constitute the faction that Putin depends on for power, and they are everywhere.

But now, in Putin's second term, we have also come to realise that despite the hardliners' grip on power, there is no security. One tragedy is followed by another. You could say that Russia's entire population has been taken hostage.

In recent days, those of us in the Russian media who sought answers from people in authority quickly realised that there was absolutely no coherent counter-terrorism strategy in place. Before the siege in Beslan, we had the explosion at an underground station that killed 10, and last week the crashing of two commercial airliners. We switch on the television to find some new terrorist atrocity under way. And this in the fifth year of rule by the hardliners.

The tragedy is that Russian society now accepts as inevitable that every few months we must face something like this. Contrast this with the reaction in Spain after the bombs in Madrid. The people turned out in their millions. Three days after Monday's bomb in Moscow, I passed the spot where the attack took place. The only thing out of the ordinary was a few bouquets of flowers on the pavement alongside the usual beggars and tramps. Even as the school siege was unfolding most people in Moscow continued their lives as normal. Of course they were shocked and appalled, but they saw no point in manifesting that anger in public.

The reason is that Putin and his hardline factions have done much to eliminate civic society. We the Russian people, as if hypnotised, have handed over control and responsibility in exchange for the promise of security. The trouble is Chechnya keeps on exposing the brutal truth that security is an illusion. Yet for Putin and his closest associates, to negotiate with terrorists would be a sign of weakness.

In any case, even this latest tragedy will not make Russians reconsider their attitudes to Chechnya. What most of them want is for Putin to adopt an even tougher line. Anyone identifiably from the Caucasus is already viewed in Russia as a potential terrorist. The anger felt at the ongoing vulnerability to terror may eventually spill out on to the streets; ethnic tensions will rise, perhaps resulting even in pogroms against Chechens or others from the Caucasus.

But for Putin and the siloviki, Beslan could be as devastating a blow as the humiliation for the Kremlin in 1995 when the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev took hundreds of patients hostage in a hospital in Budyonnovsk. More than 100 died during a botched raid by the Russian security services.

Leaders who build their power on the promise of security and stability can certainly rally their nations in moments of attack. But their weakness is that the ground on which their leadership is founded is so narrow. If they fail, the consequences are dramatic. Russian society is slow and people are patient. But sooner or later that patience will run out.

The author is a staff writer for the Russian newspaper 'Kommersant'

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