Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Governments react differently to acts of terror. President Bush took the war against terror on the offensive, to Afghanistan and Iraq. He chose to meet force with force, and the United States — thankfully — has not been hit by acts of terrorism since September 11, 2001. In Spain, the newly elected government chose to react to the Madrid train bombings with appeasement, withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. This will most certainly make Europe less, not more secure, in the future.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has reacted to the Beslan school massacre by taking yet another step in centralizing political power in the Kremlin, as announced on Monday. To the foreign observer, tightening the country’s political structures does not make a lot of sense in terms of improving Russia’s dismal record on protecting the safety of its citizens. It does, however, make a lot of sense if the purpose is rolling back the democratic gains that were made in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. This is a response that seems designed to take us back to the Soviets, possibly even to the era of the czars.

The occasion certainly deserved a very forceful response. Even with the horrors of September 11 still fresh in our minds here, the depraved, inhuman brutality that was visited on small town of Beslan, when Chechen terrorists grabbed hold of some 1,200 hostages on the first day of school, is unspeakable. As a result, Beslan is now mourning the slaughter of over 350 and more than 700 wounded — children, parents and teachers. Just thinking about what happened there breaks your heart.

The Russian government’s initial response, however, was not promising. News agencies greatly underreported the number of hostages, and the unfolding drama was kept out of the news. It was a classic Soviet-style treatment, reminiscent of the days when any untoward event, from earthquakes to airline crashes to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, was hushed up. Mr. Putin has also been blamed for not reacting quickly enough, remaining silent for two days and having taken insufficient security measures to protect the schools.

So, improving security in public buildings and strengthening anti-terrorism legislation and intelligence capabilities within the security services would be the first order of business, one would think. That’s pretty much where we began in the United States on September 12, 2001. Russia’s previous record on domestic terrorism has left a lot to be desired. From the Moscow apartment bombings, to the theater hostage drama, the murder of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov and the explosion in late August that brought down two passenger jets, killing 89 people, Russia is facing a massive if so far unacknowledged terrorist crisis, deriving mainly from the war in Chechnya.

In this context, Mr. Putin’s threatened version of pre-emptive strikes against terrorist strongholds abroad is understandable, if somewhat nerve-racking given the Soviet record of assassinations over the years. Terrorism is terrorism, whether Chechens, al Qaeda or Hamas are involved, and must be fought. The United States itself reserved the right to strike pre-emptively at terrorist targets after September 11.

Yet, others of Mr. Putin’s responses have been very troubling — for instance, Mr. Putin’s pointed attacks on the governments of the United States and Britain for harboring Chechen terrorists. These are Chechens who have sought political asylum because of the brutal war renewed in 1999 by Mr. Putin himself against separatists in the small autonomous region of Chechnya.

And according to Monday’s announcement on political restructuring, gone are the popular elections for Russia’s 89 regional governors, some of whom grew in popularity to be rival power centers to the Kremlin. The Russian parliament, the Duma, also received the president’s attention. Elections will now be based solely on party lists, which will restrict the formation of new political parties. Meanwhile, there has been no cabinet reshuffle to suggest that blame is being assigned. Should not someone — a Russian George Tenet? — be held accountable for the security failures and the chaotic law-enforcement situation that aggravated the Beslan tragedy?

All of this seems highly opportunistic, hardly designed for “internal security” as Mr. Putin stated, but part of a long-term strategy for authoritarian political control. Under the chaotic Boris Yeltsin, Russians in the 1990s gained many political freedoms to which they can now gradually wave goodbye. It is the biggest rollback in Russia’s democratization process in a decade, and does not bode well for the future.

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