An interview with Alexander Dzasokhov, former president of North Ossetia

In a few days’ time Russia will mark the first anniversary of the Beslan school tragedy. This is an interview with Alexander Dzasokhov, former president of North Ossetia, now the Federation Council member representing North Ossetia’s executive branch.

In a few days’ time Russia will mark the first anniversary of the Beslan school tragedy. This is an interview with Alexander Dzasokhov, former president of North Ossetia, now the Federation Council member representing North Ossetia’s executive branch.

Question: The mothers of Beslan have placed the blame for what happened directly on members of the operation headquarters. Were you a member of the headquarters yourself? What kind of counter-arguments can you make in response to the statement from the mothers of Beslan?

Alexander Dzasokhov: Nurpasha Kulayev is currently standing trial, but this isn’t just one person on trial here. The court hearings are revealing the broader picture of how the terrorists made their preparations. The evil originated from them, after all. And the attempt to divert attention from a tough approach to the terrorists themselves is mistaken. This trial must be completed, and all the demands of the victims must receive an answer.

I was not a member of the operation headquarters. Still, I can’t comment on these events from a “don’t blame me” perspective. I bear some moral responsibility too.

Question: Who decided that you wouldn’t be part of the headquarters?

Alexander Dzasokhov: No one invited me to be part of it. To all appearances, the operation headquarters was set up in accordance with the law on terrorism, which clearly states that in the event of such a politically-tinted terrorist attack, the operation headquarters should be commanded by the head of the regional FSB directorate or a more senior FSB officer from Moscow. But this decision did not free me of the obligation to contribute to resolving the situation. All the moves we made – all our telephone conversations – were recorded on tape by the relevant state agencies. We were prepared to go to great lengths for the sake of saving lives. We tried to contact Maskhadov and Zakayev – we were prepared to provide them with a safety corridor.

Question: When you say “we,” do you mean the leadership of North Ossetia?

Alexander Dzasokhov: I mean myself, as the regional leader, and the people who were at my side.

Question: When you took these steps, did you inform the operation headquarters?

Alexander Dzasokhov: I made no secret of it. On a number of issues we coordinated our actions with the headquarters, especially the special forces commandos. For example, as early as September 1 it was clearly understood that regardless of any provocation by the terrorists, we must not take any pre-emptive action involving the use of force. The relatives of the hostages were also making such demands. Now, looking back, some might say: “See what a terrible outcome there was in the end.” But at the time we were working toward one goal – freeing the hostages and ensuring that casualties would be minimized.

Question: Why did the climax of the siege happen on the third day? Did the terrorists specify that time-frame, or was the tragic conclusion on September 3 unexpected, due to an explosion? Or was some sort of culmination bound to happen on that day?

Alexander Dzasokhov: In their contacts with negotiators, the terrorists mentioned on September 2 that they had planned to hold out for three days. Perhaps they were counting on receiving some support from outside. They never stopped taking phone calls, after all – but they didn’t accept a single proposal either. I’d like to point out that they shot 21 people on September 1. And a little girl died in there on that day – she was a diabetic and didn’t have access to her medication.

We couldn’t count on the terrorists showing any humane feelings. What’s more, when we offered to set up a corridor of human shields and have adults take the place of children as hostages, the terrorists responded with a categorical refusal expressed in crude language.

Question: Here’s the question everyone keeps asking you. The terrorists demanded to see four people: yourself, President Murat Zyazikov of Ingushetia, presidential advisor Aslambek Aslakhanov, and Dr. Leonid Roshal. Why didn’t you go into the school alone? Were you afraid?

Alexander Dzasokhov: I do understand that the dead can’t be brought back to life, and any answer I make will be overshadowed by the tragedy that ensued. But this question remains on the agenda. Under the circumstances, I did make the decision to go into the school. I didn’t think I’d make it as far as the gym where the hostages were being held. The terrorists were demanding to see all four of us together, not one or two of us separately. The investigation agencies and Beslan residents are well aware of that. I don’t think the terrorists would have negotiated with me if I’d gone in there – I know what they would have done to me.

We weren’t on some remote island somewhere. I don’t want to reveal all the details, but there were certain individuals… for example, a deputy interior minister – a three-star police general – approached me and said he had orders to arrest and handcuff me if I tried to enter the school. I don’t want to debate whether I should or shouldn’t have gone in there. I’m just saying that I made the decision to go – this was between me and my conscience. Looking back at my actions, I clearly understand that I was prepared to go ahead with actions that may not have been approved by the public or the authorities. But I was prepared to do it.

Question: Have you ever discussed this with Zyazikov – at the time, or since then? And how did you manage to avoid complications in relations with the people of Ingushetia? At the time, many commented that a war between the Ossetians and Ingushetians was set to break out in the wake of Beslan. What about the blood feud laws of vengeance?

Alexander Dzasokhov: Since Beslan, we have witnessed two monstrous terrorist attacks: in London and in Sharm-el-Sheikh. What’s more, London had some unprecedented security measures in place at the time, due to the G8 summit. The Mayor of London said that the terrorists aimed to “cause head-on clashes between us, so we would tear out each other’s throats like caged animals.” To the credit of our people and other ethnic groups in North Ossetia, I am able to say that the Beslan events did not drag us into fighting each other. Young people in our region did a huge amount of public awareness work, helping to explain that although the terrorists were from the North Caucasus, ordinary citizens should not be held accountable for their actions.

Question: Did you call President Putin? Did he call you?

Alexander Dzasokhov: Our first conversation took place sometime after 11 p.m. on September 1. I was able to speak to the president once a secure telephone connection had been set up. The most important point he made was this: “We must do everything possible to save the hostages.” He and I had two or three more conversations, in which I gave him information within the scope of my authority.

Question: And what was the scope of your authority?

Alexander Dzasokhov: No one defined it exactly, but the idea was that I would maintain contact with the general public. And propose alternative demands via a group of special service officers: a safety corridor of human shields, or replacing the hostages – we even offered them helicopters. Over and over again, we kept checking to make sure that nothing could provoke a pre-emptive use of force. I also spoke to a number of Muslim clerics from North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. But no one paid attention to what they said. What’s more, when one of our Muslim clerics tried to enter the school he was driven back by a burst of gunfire aimed at his feet. And when we spoke to the terrorists about their own children, they replied: “Bring them here into this yard, and we’ll shoot them too.”

Question: Was this particular school chosen at random, or because its students included the children of some senior North Ossetian officials?

Alexander Dzasokhov: The terrorists said that their goal was to penetrate deep into Russia. So this crime wasn’t just aimed at one particular school in Beslan – it was aimed against Russia as a whole.

Question: What about the militia – were they a help or a hindrance?

Alexander Dzasokhov: It wasn’t a militia, but some Beslan residents who had firearms – they emerged on September 3. Subsequently, an attempt was made to pin the blame on those who took part in the hostage rescue operation. I am categorically opposed to posing the question in that way. Later on, the commander of the special forces said they had played a very important role, working in cooperation after the explosion in the school gym.