Russian Roulette

Crazy Caucasians repressing, revolting, and butchering one another

The Beslan slaughter must puzzle many Americans, because practically all the U.S. media are puzzled too. Who are the Ingush? Who are the North Ossetians? Does that mean there's a South Ossetia? (Yes, and it's extremely rebellious—against Georgia.)

The smartest stuff right this moment may be on yesterday's Wall Street Journal's editorial page—no, not the paper's typically knee-jerk pro-establishment editorial on Beslan but the article by David Satter that appeared next to it.

In "A Small Town in Russia," Satter gets right to the point:

MOSCOW—The horrifying outcome of the Beslan school siege in southern Russia makes clear that President Vladimir Putin's determination to crush the Chechen resistance at all costs is a form of moral suicide that will destroy what is left of Russian democracy and could threaten the whole world.

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As suspicions grow about what actually set off the crazed conflagration and slaughter—was it the terrorists or did Russian commandos launch a grenade?—practically everyone else in the U.S. media (including the Journal's own editorial next to Satter's piece) focuses only on the idiot terrorists who took those poor children hostage. But Satter goes beyond that to pin Bush pal Putin for his intransigence toward Chechnya and the other southern "republics."

A former reporter for the Financial Times and the Journal, Satter wrote a piece back in 2002 for National Review Online that gives good background. In "The Shadow of Ryazan," he raises this question: "Is Putin's government legitimate?" His thesis is that Putin promoted a war against the Chechens—even to the point of perhaps falsely blaming Chechen separatists for horrifying 1999 terror attacks in Russia proper—to take Russians' minds off the country's crumbling economy and protect the oligarchs who were looting the country. (Sound familiar? Satter doesn't liken this to the Bush regime's similar use of the post–9-11 "war on terror.") Here's how Satter tells it:

In explaining his support for the American-led anti-terrorist coalition after September 11, 2001, Putin said that Russia had also been a victim of terrorism. This experience, however, looks rather different if the bombings in September 1999 were carried out by the Russian government as part of an effort to preserve the power and wealth of a criminal oligarchy.

Satter notes the incredible impact the mysterious 1999 bombings of three apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk had on the Russian psyche—and voters:

The bombings stunned Russia but, in their wake, the stage was set for the rescue of the Yeltsin-era oligarchy. Popular anger over corruption was redirected against the Chechens. Putin, whose popularity rating had been 2 percent, launched a war against Chechnya and, in the process, became Russia's savior. In April 2000, he was easily elected president and, in that capacity, he granted immunity from prosecution to Yeltsin and his family, put an end to all talk of a redivision of property, and preserved the Yeltsin-era oligarchy virtually intact.

Suspicion keeps growing that the '99 bombings may have been done by the government's FSB (the former KGB)—not Chechens. There, the parallel to 9/11 breaks down, of course. But the use of a "war on terror" to whip up the populace and distract them while rich people sneak bags of money out to their limousines—that sounds extremely familiar.

In any case, there are few other U.S. sources for good analysis of what's going on in and around the bloody Caucasus Mountains. But Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty runs an excellent Newsline to help you sort through the ethnic, political, and religious rubble of the Beslan tragedy.

Also on the job is Igor Torbakov, a former Fulbright Scholar at Columbia who's covering Beslan for Eurasianet. His latest piece, "Beslan Tragedy Has Potential to Fan Conflict Across the Caucasus," helps explain the various religious, ethnic, and territorial battles engulfing southern Russia, Georgia, North and South Ossetia, Ingushetia—did I leave anything out? Yes.

But Jeremy Bransten of RFE/RL covers some of it in "Troubling Questions Remain About Beslan Siege." And those questions he raises make Beslan, North Ossetia, sound like Waco, Texas:

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer disputes the official version of events as presented by the [Russian] government. He tells RFE/RL that the idea that Russian forces decided to break the siege at the last minute in reaction to the militants' actions is a fabrication meant to cover up the disastrous outcome of what he believes was a planned assault. Just as in the hostage-taking drama at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October 2002, he accuses the authorities of hiding the truth from the Russian public.

You want to get a sense of what's going on with those crazy Caucasians? Imagine that after the disastrous Waco siege in 1993 that resulted in the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians (21 of them children), the people of Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston started bombing and assassinating one another.

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