As many as 100,000 Russians gathered near the Kremlin on Sept. 7 to protest the Beslan attack, where at least 335 died. In Moscow and many other cities across Russia, protesters are focusing most of their anger on the perpetrators. But Russian President Vladimir V. Putin could take hits, too, for not doing enough
to protect the country from terrorists. Putin himself admitted in a national address on Sept. 4 that the armed forces and security services need to be revamped. Liberals in Russia and the West say Putin should be doing more to stop the violence by negotiating a political settlement in Chechnya. "Will the President agree to a fundamental revision of his policy in Chechnya?" independent Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov asked in Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Sept. 6.
The trouble is, even if Putin wanted to pursue a peaceful settlement, his options to end the violence are limited. For one thing, the terrorists' primary aim isn't independence for Chechnya. "The main goal was to punish Putin. Another goal was to destabilize the whole situation in the North Caucasus and southern Russia," says Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert from the Carnegie Center in Moscow. By triggering revenge attacks on Muslims in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, the terrorists hope to win converts to the extremist cause.
Besides, the militants have little sympathy among most Chechens. According to Sergei Khaikin of the Institute for Social Marketing in Moscow, which conducts regular surveys of Chechen public opinion, a mere 2% to 3% of the population support rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, compared with 80% who want Chechnya to remain in Russia. "It's not that they love the Russians," he says. "They think that it's simply more advantageous to live with Russia." So if the Russians were to hold talks with the groups responsible for the Beslan massacre, Moscow would just alienate the Chechen majority.
Moscow, of course, has complicated the task of finding a way out by waging two brutal wars. But even before Russia's 1999 invasion, the Chechen separatist movement had largely been taken over by Islamic extremists with little public support. The U.S. State Department says three Chechen groups controlled by rebel warlord Shamil Basayev have "numerous and longstanding linkages to each other and to al Qaeda, with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban." Maskhadov, Chechnya's former President, says he opposes Basayev's methods. But even if Moscow did negotiate with Maskhadov, analysts say he has little power over rebels such as Basayev.
What else could Putin do? The President could take steps to broaden the Chechen political process, thus strengthening the legitimacy of local government and weakening whatever remaining support the rebels have. Perhaps most important, the North Caucasus region needs economic development. Although Moscow sends increasing amounts of reconstruction aid, most of it is stolen by corrupt officials. Better would be grassroots measures to promote small-scale enterprise. Over time greater political participation and economic revival could help reduce the social alienation that swells the ranks of militants. It would be naive to think, though, that such measures would have an immediate effect. The tragic reality is that Russia is likely to suffer from terrorist attacks and ethnic conflict for years to come.
By Jason Bush in Moscow
Edited by Patricia Kranz