September 15, 2004
By Helle C. Dale
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.
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at
the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First appeared in The Washington Times
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 has not been hit by acts of terrorism since September 11, 2001.
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
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