By Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post (THE WASHINGTON POST, 04/09/2006):
MOSCOW -- Two years ago the new school term began in horror for the town of Beslan in North Ossetia. Chechen terrorists seized School Number One, and in the tragic events that followed, more than 330 civilians were killed, including 186 children. Today the organized relatives of Beslan victims claim that the officials have done nothing to establish the real picture of the tragedy.
"It is obvious that siloviki (interior and security officials) are to blame for people's deaths," a group leader said. And yet, in the absence of active public, let alone political, support, they are powerless to compel the government to answer why so many had to die.
If there is one lesson the Kremlin has learned -- or had confirmed for itself -- since Beslan, it is that by maintaining tight control over political life and major media coverage, it can efficiently minimize the political fallout from just about any event, even a tragedy as huge as Beslan. By way of contrast, consider that in the United States, alleged mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster continues to be a hot public and political issue a year later. In Russia, little is heard of Beslan.
In fact, the Kremlin has used the tragedy as a pretext to further empower the security agencies and to expand control over political life and the media. Almost immediately after the security operation ended at the school, President Vladimir Putin moved to cancel direct popular elections of Russian governors. In the two years since Beslan, election rules have been repeatedly amended and fine-tuned so that nothing is left to chance and the result of the voting is sure to suit government interests.
The Kremlin has undertaken to mold the political parties' configuration so that ambitious actors with autonomous agendas will be safely marginalized. The political scene is filled with yes-men. At the same time, the Kremlin has consolidated control over civil society's organizations, focusing especially on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, since foreign funding is virtually the only factor that might enable public activism independent of the government.
The campaign to control major media began long before Beslan, of course, and indeed it allowed the government to rigidly restrict coverage of Beslan. While previous tragedies, such as the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000 and, to a lesser extent, the Moscow theater siege in 2002, had been investigated by major broadcast media, the monstrous terrorist attack in Beslan was not. The Kremlin radically limited coverage on federal television, which reaches almost 100 percent of the Russian public. It was only minor media that sought to find out what the government was trying to hide. Some of the print and online media (but not television!) reported the highly important evidence that surfaced at the trial of the only captured Beslan terrorist. They also published interviews with survivors and witnesses, as well as with some outspoken officials, and reported on the investigations conducted by local or independent legislators. But all these sources of information are marginal -- and thus politically irrelevant.
Two years later the most burning questions about Beslan remain unanswered:
How many terrorists were there? The official number is 32 -- 31 of them killed and one tried and sentenced to life in prison, but other versions claim that there were many more.
What triggered the explosions in the school and the ensuing fire that caused most of the deaths? There is solid evidence that it was grenade launchers and other heavy weapons that were fired at the school by the security forces while hostages were still in the building. Officials do not admit this.
One of the most outrageous aspects of the investigation is that we remain uninformed about the chain of command of the security operation. Who of the top-ranking federal and local security and interior officials were making life-or-death decisions? There is no answer to the question of who gave orders to understate the number of hostages. It was initially reported there were 354, about one-third of the actual number.
According to the survivors, when the false number was broadcast on TV, the terrorists flew into a rage, and the treatment of the captives grew even more inhumane.
In a public opinion poll released last week, only 5 percent said they believe that government authorities are telling the whole truth about events related to capture and release of the hostages, while 28 percent believe that they are hiding the truth and 50 percent say that only part of the truth is being told. But this has produced no demand that the truth be told.
The only people who have never stopped protesting are the victims' relatives in Beslan. Though the Kremlin has tried in various ways to neutralize them, they will not drop their cause. Indeed, their despair makes them immune to attempts to appease or discredit them.
So the Kremlin for the most part chooses to ignore them. Last year, on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, their passionate advocacy compelled Putin to meet with the mothers. But this year the Kremlin shows no sign of concern about them.
Should future tragedies occur, the Kremlin seems properly equipped to isolate the victims and avoid the political consequences.