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The scorched earth war on Chechnya no one will talk about
Behind Russia's school horror

September 10, 2004 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR reports on the bloody aftermath of the hostage crisis in a Russian school--and how it is connected to President Vladimir Putin's scorched-earth war in Chechnya.

THE HORRIFIC end to the hostage takeover in Russia September 3 highlighted two crises--Moscow's savage war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and a deepening power struggle between President Vladimir Putin and his rivals. The seizure of a school in the town of Beslan by Chechen fighters ended with a chaotic assault by Russian Special Forces that apparently was responsible for many of the deaths.

An estimated 350 people--half of them children--were reported killed as Socialist Worker went to press. The Putin government's refusal to negotiate and its deadly assault were reminiscent of the disastrous outcome of the 2002 takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen fighters. That standoff ended with a nerve gas attack by Special Forces that killed 129 hostages.

Now the raid in Beslan has resulted in far more civilian deaths. "Ultimately, the Russian troops did what they know best: shoot in all directions with massive firepower, rather than execute the surgical strike required in such circumstances," wrote a BBC news analyst. "The result was that 40 percent of all the hostages were killed, and another 40 percent were injured, a staggering tally which is much worse than in any other mass hostage crisis in living memory."

The school takeover was the latest in a series of attacks attributed to the Chechen resistance in recent weeks--including explosions that downed two airliners simultaneously and a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station. The corporate media toed the U.S. government line--itself copied from Putin's rhetoric--that the Chechens are simply bloodthirsty monsters, part of an international "terrorist" conspiracy along with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

Missing from most accounts were the war crimes committed by the Russian government that stoked the fury and violence in the first place. People around the world were horrified by the images of the carnage in Beslan. But the violence of the Russian state inflicted on Chechnya has been far greater.

The genocidal war to crush the aspirations of the Chechen people for freedom has left at least 100,000 Chechens dead--and involved the total destruction of the Chechen capital of Grozny, along with numerous villages. The recent series of attacks comes in response to a fraudulent election in Chechnya, orchestrated to make sure Putin's candidate won.

Among Russian leaders, Putin bears the most responsibility for the war on Chechnya--a republic in southwestern Russia with a population of 1 million people. In fact, he used the slaughter as a springboard to the presidency five years ago.

In 1994, former President Boris Yeltsin ordered the invasion of Chechnya to try to stop the Russian Federation from unraveling--several years after Chechnya, along with 14 non-Russian republics, declared independence. Russian forces unleashed a bloodbath, but they were forced to retreat in a humiliating defeat.

In 1999, as the newly elected prime minister, Putin ordered Russian troops back into Chechnya following a string of mysterious bombings of apartments that were blamed on Chechens. This time, the Russian occupation "succeeded." But the operation in Chechnya has been marked by widespread human rights violations by Russian troops, including torture, execution, rape and looting.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government has mostly kept quiet--unwilling to jeopardize support from its new ally in the "war on terror." The resistance will continue. Chechens have been famous for opposing Russia's rule since the Tsarist empire's conquest of the Caucasus in the mid-19th century--and they managed to survive Joseph Stalin's mass deportations in the 1940s.

Today, Putin wants to keep control of Chechnya not just for its access to oil reserves, but to prevent its independence from serving as an example to other non-Russian republics--or a sign of weakness to Russia's rivals in the U.S., Europe and China.

The war hasn't made ordinary Russians safer from "terrorism." It has increasingly put them at risk, as the Moscow theater takeover two years ago, and now the Beslan school nightmare, show.

The crisis facing Putin

THE SERIES of attacks by the Chechen resistance shattered Putin's law-and-order image just four months after he was re-elected--a victory that itself followed an earlier win by his supporters in legislative elections. In both cases, Putin used the increasing state domination of the media to prevent his rivals from gaining attention.

Nevertheless, the opposition--mainly from the remnants of the former ruling Communist Party and several pro-free market liberal parties--was already in deep crisis, unwilling to challenge Putin and unable to provide an alternative. Now, Putin aims to tighten his grip by pushing through a series of free-market, neoliberal "reforms" that will convert state benefits for some 32 million people--including subsidies for transportation, medicine and housing--into miserably low cash stipends.

At the same time, Putin has tried to play the populist with the government's prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire boss of the oil giant Yukos, on corruption charges. Khodorkovsky is certainly a crook. He's one of the "oligarchs"--the superrich business executives who took control of Russian industries in the 1990s under the rigged privatization of state enterprises orchestrated by Boris Yeltsin.

Putin's goal, however, isn't the prosecution of a wrongdoer. He wants to put the squeeze on the whole oligarchy as part of a plan to discipline Russian capitalism, according to Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies and a former political prisoner in the USSR.

"Putin is trying to promote the groups and clans that are aligned to the transnational capital coming to Russia," Kagarlitsky told Socialist Worker. "The Russian oligarchy is feeling very oppressed. Not by any popular pressure or any progressive project, but from the transnationals coming to Russia, the country entering the World Trade Organization, and removing obstacles to foreign capital.

"Putin's removal of protections on housing, health care and barriers to foreign corporations are part of imposing perfect market rules, from the American point of view." Foreign capital favors Putin's strategy--as can be seen in the run-up of the Russian stock market--and Putin apparently has calculated that high oil prices have given him room to maneuver against the old guard.

Meanwhile, Kagarlitsky said, Putin's recent removal of the military chief of staff triggered a revolt in what are known in Russia as the "power agencies"--including the security services that succeeded the KGB secret police (where Putin once reigned), the interior ministry and the military. The military had preserved their privileges, but they were not prepared to fight or resist Putin--they concentrated on taking care of themselves," Kagarlitsky said.

"But Putin didn't want them to be neutral--he wanted them under control. The result is that they turned to opposition"--and are increasingly allied with the oligarchy against Putin. According to Kagarlitsky, Russian military intelligence has essentially gone on strike, giving the Chechen rebels the ability to carry out an unprecedented string of attacks and throw Putin's government into turmoil.

There's no predicting just how the latest string of attacks and the bloodshed in Beslan will affect Russian politics. It's already clear, however, that Putin's election victory, far from guaranteeing a new period of stability, has opened up a new period of crisis in Russia.

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