The Beslan anniversary: more and more questions

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In the lead-up to September 1, the topic of Belsan in the Russian media took on a clearly-expressed political tone.

Questions left unanswered by the authorities have been almost as traumatic for the public as the school hostage-taking itself. Neither the official investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office nor two parliamentary commissions (one by both houses of the federal parliament, the other by the North Ossetian parliament) have produced answers to numerous questions about the Beslan tragedy.

The Izvestia newspaper listed the main questions. Was the hostage-taking preventable? How many guerrillas were there, and did any of them manage to escape? Why did the bombs in the gym explode, and why did the roof catch fire? The tank parked outside the school: how many times did it fire, and at what targets? Exactly why did the hostages die? Were there any plans to storm the school, and was there any possibility of reaching agreement with the terrorists on a “peaceful” withdrawal?

Other publications add further questions to this list. What were senior state officials doing during those three dark days? Why were orders from the Interior Ministries of North Ossetia ignored? They had prior information about the guerrillas planning an operation. How did a number of armed terrorists manage to enter Beslan at all?

That last question, as the Kommersant newspaper reports, is answered by Shamil Basayev in a statement posted on his Kavkazcenter.com website shortly before the first anniversary of the tragedy. He claims that his people were “encouraged” to seize the school by “the special services of North Ossetia.”

Basayev alleges that the special services planted an agent, Vladimir Khodov, among his guerrillas – hoping to lure Basayev out on September 6, Ichkerian Independence Day, for an operation aimed at seizing the government building in Vladikavkaz – and then destroying Basayev on the border. That’s why the guerrillas were essentially given free passage on the roads by the authorities. By that time, however, Basayev had persuaded Khodov to switch sides – and so the guerrilla gang ended up in Beslan instead.

The Prosecutor’s Office of the South Federal District, Kommersant reports, called Basaev’s statement “crazy” and “not answering the factual materials of the Beslan criminal affair.” Still, former hostages and other Beslan residents recollected that they indeed saw Khodov before the Beslan terrorist act – both in Vladikavkaz and in Beslan, near school 1. And the terrorist, announced for detection, photos of which were published in the local papers, “didn’t try to hide away.” As the witnesses assure, “it seemed that there was really someone standing behind his back.”

Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovsakya believes Basaev’s statements should simply be ignored. “These are just details of the process,” said Politkovskaya in an interview with Echo of Moscow Radio. “I do not know, if Basaev himself invented it or not, but the terrorist act was organized by him, this fact is no longer doubted, and this should be taken as a starting point, however it might be explained,” says Politkovskaya.

However, there are no fewer questions a year later.

Factually, the situation is not enlightened even by the legal action of Nurpasha Kulayev, “a bandits’ gofer” (an expression by Gazeta), the only guerrilla who got into the hands of justice.

Kulayev’s evidences, as Novoe Vremya magazine noted, “are hundred times less informative than that what can be learnt from former hostages.” In their evidences there lies a true “rich repository of information.” Besides, the action is held “not in the airless space – in Vladikavkaz, in the limelight, in the tense atmosphere.” Neither the judge nor the prosecutors can fail to take into consideration the general interest for the investigation – “the dead and injured have almost a half of the republic of relatives.”

Nevertheless, that what comes into light interests neither the investigation nor the prosecution, says Novoye Vremya. “Since the version of the Prosecutor’s Office is so fine that no one feels like breaking it (and their careers): Kulayev and 32 other guerrillas, with full armament and ammunition, came by GAZ-66 and captured the school. Then scotch tape came unstuck of one of the mines – an explosion, followed with that what it was followed with. In the course of the fight all the guerrillas, except Kulayev, were killed – nobody escaped, all their bodies were found and identified for the most part.”

However, there are few of those in Ossetia who believe this version. And, judging from the fire intensity, there were at least 50 guerrillas. And the witnesses do not identify many of those whom they saw in the gym among the killed. What’s more, as Novoye Vremya highlights, it becomes evident from the witnesses’ evidences, that the guerrillas had a support group outside the school: “From the military viewpoint, it’s right! There should be reconnaissance, ground reconnaissance, and a front group, which will warn and back the main forces if necessary.” Still, neither the preliminary investigation, nor the prosecution touches the issue of the terrorists’ local sidekicks.

As for the action of Kulayev, it’s important to understand about the issue, as Marina Litvinovich says in Novaya Gazeta, that the affair is separated from the general investigation into the Beslan events. The victims are not so far interested in Kulayev himself and his guilt – they aren’t blaming Kulayev alone for the deaths of their children. “The chief, big affair” of the Beslan events was not passed to the court, and the former hostages believe the Prosecutor General’s Office is just temporizing, waiting for the intensity of emotion to weaken. That’s why the former hostages and their relatives factually try to hold their own investigation, reconstructing the scene. And in their investigation they divert with prosecutors practically in every point – from as if in advance prepared in the school weapon storages, the existence of which is not confirmed by the official investigation, to the “spontaneously unstuck” tape, on which the first in the gym bomb was hanging. There are also other contradictions, inconsistent details, theories, and, certainly, lots of questions.

Newspapers abound in theories. Novoye Bremya magazine poses the question, “why does everybody stubbornly believe that the commandment of the group of terrorists was going to wait for the assault to resist up to the last bullet, when another option was obvious: a breakthrough!” Which was, quite possibly, realized. “The first explosion attracts attention, another one follows – and the merry-go-round starts spinning.”

The guerrillas, with the exception of a few initiated ones, believe the assault has begun – locals start firing all their weapons, the school is burning, it attracts overall attention, and everybody tries to save the hostages – “chaos, panic, the best moment to leave.”

The prospect for the investigation and the prosecution is extremely unfavorable, states Novoye Vremya: “As having acknowledged the success of the breakthrough and escape of the terrorist commanders, they’ll have to acknowledge the failure of those who were to have prevented from this terrorist act, or at least to localize it, blocking further development of the tragedy.” It turns out that the organizers of the terrorist act outplayed everybody, sacrificing both hostages and their people.

Head of the Parliament Commission of North Ossetia Stanislav Kesaev also has questions. He remembers in the interview for Argumenty i Fakty weekly that on September 3 he had heard military radio conversations about guerrillas, “Attention on the line: they are dressing and leaving.” As it said, on one side of the school, along the railway road, there was no army cordon. In the school a lot of camouflage outfits were left behind.. Then, Kesaev asks, why didn’t the Prosecutor’s Office respond to the suggestion of passing these clothes for tests to identify the owner?

What’s more, the head of the Parliament Commission of North Ossetia notes that several men were detained after the assault on suspicion of involvement in the gang of Khuchbarov (Colonel). Later they were released, however. Kesaev himself saw “three men who were forced into a cellar.” Who were they? Why weren’t they summoned for interrogation as witnesses at least?

“Why the power people don’t wish (or cannot) do it so that we know the course of the tragedy second by second?” asks Izvestia in the editorial. In the opinion of the newspaper, “no one will ever accuse the power of that they didn’t prevent the terrorist act. Since there is no power which has learnt to prevent terrorist acts.”

A repeat of the tragedy is quite possible, “All the trucks entering a city cannot be examined. There simply are not enough police officers.” But even accusation that the assault was ill-organized, as Izvestia believes, are not fully grounded, “They stormed the school as best they could. And the commandos did their best to save people.” Even if something was wrong, it’s difficult to blame them for it, “Everyone in Russia understands that none of the commandos hid behind the backs of the hostages.” Eleven special task force officers were killed: “In Russia there are no other people who can storm captured buildings full of hostages.”

Citizens cannot forgive the authorities for one thing, as Izvestia says: lies. “Lies about there being only 354 hostages inside, about flame throwers not being used. About the terrorists not making any demands.” These lies are in our memories, and the main question arises, “Why do they like to lie so much?”

Maybe, as Izvestia states, this is the result of fear about “someone’s rating.”

However, in Izvestia’s opinion, the truth about what had happened cannot be a danger for anyone’s rating, “One cannot prevent the next terrorist attack. One can only minimize its possibility. One cannot release all hostages in 100% of cases. One can only try to save as many as one can. But one must not lie to people.”

On the other hand, as journalist from Vladikavkaz Alan Tskhurbaev says in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, they have concluded in Beslan that “even truth that is spoken or published in some newspaper will not be followed by any reaction.” Even notes from the court, which are read by people frozen from apprehension, as a rule, rest “only documentary proof of the nightmare.”

There are new threats: after the Beslan tragedy, the zone of instability has been expanding over the whole North Caucasus.

In the beginning, as Tskhurbaev says, they were afraid of a new war between North Ossetia and Ingushetia (there were Ingushetians among terrorists). However, such exploit, which was so prospective and feared, did not take place. But the disastrous threat still remains, “A year after the terrorist attack, Beslan men are still in the tension.” 14 years of relative stability between Ossetia and Ingush people after the conflict of 1992, Alan Tskhurbaev underlines, “are crossed out by Beslan – if not forever, than for a long period of time.”

In the President’s administration they now speak about “underground fire in Dagestan,” while member of Research Council of Moscow’s Carnegie center Alexei Malashenko told the Gazeta newspaper, that is one speaks about the situation in the North Caucasus, “there is a feeling that we live under the condition of a time bomb. And that is apart from the Chechen war.”

On the one hand, Malashenko says, there are “issues of the Chechen conflict to Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, which is dangerous and destabilizes the situation.” On the other hand, each republic has its own problems, quite serious problems, and if gather them all together, it will be a “hot spot” or , if you like, a “nightmare of the big bang possible” in the North Caucasus.

Nowadays, any talk concerning security in Russia, as Expert magzaine says, “demands a principal summation, what is the talk about – about the North Caucasus or about the situation outside that region.” This division is essential, since “the situation in the region of South varies from the situation in the whole country.”

Meanwhile, until Beslan, says Expert, “in spite of the conclusions of analysts and FSB agency data, proving the sharp stirring up of terrorists outside Chechnya and the danger of expanding the terrorist war over the whole Caucasus, there were almost no serious operations outside Chechnya.” Only after the tragedy in North Ossetia, a full-scale struggle against terrorists began in the region. Today, one can say, this struggle is in its highest point, “At that, if one manages to stabilize the situation in one republic (having abolished main groupings of terrorists and their leaders), the situation in a neighboring republic becomes more acute.”

The tactics of terrorists have also changed during this year, Expert notes: if before they commenced acts of terrorisms against peaceful citizens, then now regional and federal authorities are their main aim.” As expert on struggle against terrorism Vladimir Polyakov explained to the magazine, today the terrorists are trying to become stronger in the republics of the North Caucasus, having established bases for further acts and recruiting of new members, “It is important for them to demonstrate their power, not disposing the local men against them, but playing at their discontent with local authorities.”

Besides, the magazine adds, in the environment of the terrorists, the change of generations took place. The former generation oriented on the results of the first Chechen war, the victory in which was attained by raids in Budennovsk and Kizlyar, that means loud acts against peaceful people. The present generation of the terrorists, as the magazine states, “does not have any grounds to believe in the success of pressure at social opinion in this country.” That is why it “is oriented on local opposition with concrete representatives of the authorities.”

Besides, according to Expert, “world centers of terrorism” consider Caucasus as “bridgehead for training the staff and further expansion (to the North and to the South)” that is why the financing of terrorism is not provided by loud acts of terrorism in the territory of Russia.

Nevertheless, no one guarantees security for Russians today. “We always lag behind the terrorists,” Vladimir Polyakov told Expert, “We need to be ahead, we need predict next steps of the terrorists.” The analysts from Special Forces are occupied with that, but, Polyakov says, “this subunits do not have any peculiar influence,” since no one “want to prevent threats, which may not happen.”

The logic is quite clear: the authorities have a lot to do. As we all know, the main reaction to the Beslan hostage criis was the President’s appeal for strengthening national unity and organization of effective security system.

And the political result is the appointment of regional leaders.

The question about whether it may low the potential danger of terrorism, according to the opinion of Alexei Malashenko, is not to be discussed. “That was the pretext,” he told Gazeta, “the Chechen war and instability in the North Caucasus are used by strong as a political device, in order to limit the democratic liberties.” As Malashenko underlined, “there is nothing original in it, that happens not only here, we just do it openly and hard.”

A year after the Beslan tragedy, the Levada Center polling agency did a poll aimed at determining how attitude to this event have changed, and what has changed under the newly-revealed circumstances.

Levada Center analyst Leonid Sedov says in Vedomosti that almost a third of respondents believe the commanders of operation made it their priority to kill the terrorists and they did not care about the hostages.

“Probably,” Sedov says, “such opinion would not be so widespread, if not for the experience of the Moscow theater hostage-taking, where hostages were sacrificed as well.”

It is evident, adds Sedov, that “orders to destroy the enemy at the expense of hostages’ lives came from the very up.” Women from the Committee of Beslan Mothers imply this when they name Putin as one of the guilty.

Moreover, says Sedov in Vedomosti, the acknowledgement that the president is to blame, as the initiator of the “guerrillas first, hostages second” tactic, is added to the grievances against Putin expressed straight after the Beslan events. Back then, opinion polls indicated 35% disapproval of the president’s stance: he said there couldn’t be any negotiation at all with the terrorists.

Twenty-seven percent of respondents said that the president should have come to Beslan to negotiate; 19% said the demands of the hostage-takers should have been met.

Even more respondents, however – almost 40% – were displeased that the president hadn’t made a public statement straight after the school was attacked, to explain the situation and set out the position of the national leadership.

Leonid Sedov says: “The president’s secretiveness and silence in national emergencies has already become a bad tradition.” That’s probably why almost 90% of respondents in the same poll believe that the authorities are deliberately suppressing the truth about Beslan.

As leading journalist Dmitri Balburov says in Gazeta, however, even in this situation – with no hope of getting any anwers to all the questions – the “Beslan syndrome” now affliting others as well as Beslan residents can be overcome.

In Balburov’s view, this would require telling people the following: “We live in a country where truth and justice vary in accordance with the personal interests of those in power. That’s how things are. Don’t bother seeking truth; resign yourselves to the situation, and calm down.” According to Balburov, this realization could provide “support for the emotional rehabilitation” of all victims.

However, it seems the people of Beslan are only prepared to accept the first half of this argument: the part relating to the age-old traditions of the Russian state. They are not inclined to resign themselves to it. According to Echo of Moscow Radio, the mothers of Beslan – having despaired of finding out the truth in their own region – have appealed to Western nations for political asylum. For them, this extreme move could be the last available means of finding out the truth about Beslan.

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