In the aftermath of great tragedies, national leaders have to perform two crucial tasks. In their public pronouncements they must reflect a country's profound sadness. They also have to show resolution and indicate that they will do everything in their power to prevent such catastrophes occurring again.
Vladimir Putin, in a televised speech to the Russian people on Saturday, spoke of the suffering of the hundreds of schoolchildren held hostage during the dreadful days of the Beslan siege by Chechen terrorists. The Russian President talked of Russia's "anguish" over the brutal terrorist attack. This was entirely appropriate at a time when the mothers of Beslan are burying their slaughtered children and some remain unaware of whether their loved ones are dead or alive. National mourning will continue for some time.
President Putin also talked of setting up a "crisis management system", effectively admitting that the authorities were unprepared to deal with what occurred last week. Few ambulances were on hand to ferry the wounded to hospital. The police had failed to seal off the area, which enabled some hostage takers to try to flee in the mayhem. Armed relatives were allowed to remain in the area throughout the siege and, when the shooting began, impeded the work of the special forces. There also seems to have been no contingency plan for circumstances in which a terrorist bomb went off accidentally, as appears to have happened. In this chaotic context, the President's promise to "re-evaluate many things" is welcome.
But there are also some uncomfortable hints that President Putin still believes that, in the end, Russia can only solve its terrorist problem through force. He talked of a "fundamentally new approach to the actions of the law-enforcement agencies". If this translates as a more efficient anti-terrorism strategy, it will be welcome. More rigorous border controls in the area are also clearly needed, especially with allegations flying around that the terrorists in this case bribed local guards to let them enter the province. But the Russian President's record suggests there might well be a draconian clampdown on the civil liberties, and even human rights, of all the peoples of the Caucasus in the name of making them safe from terrorists.
There was also an alarming sense of post-Soviet paranoia in President Putin's speech. He claimed that Russia "showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon", and that "some want to cut off a juicy morsel from us while others are helping them", referring to the independence movements in the Caucusus and elsewhere. For President Putin, it is expedient to classify his internal problems as part of the global war on terror, since this acquires him the support of the United States. But equally important to him seems to be the need to "preserve the core of the colossus which was the Soviet Union", as he put it in his speech.
Most significantly of all, Chechnya was not mentioned once by President Putin. This was obviously a way of informing Chechen separatists that the events of the last week have done nothing to further their cause and that the Russian state will not give in to terrorism. The sentiment is understandable. No state can be seen to change its policies as a direct response to the actions of a few murderous fanatics. To do so would invite more destruction.
But the painful truth is that unless Russia ceases to brutalise Chechnya, that infected wound on the body of the Russian Federation, the terrorist attacks will surely continue. This will mean more pain for the people of Chechnya and Russia alike. President Putin spoke of his desire to strengthen the unity of the country in the wake of this atrocity. The only way to achieve this goal is to work towards a political solution to the problem of Chechnya. The Russian President and his government of hardliners must understand that in the wake of disaster what people demand, more than anything else, is true leadership.
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