The attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, where more than 1,000 children, teachers and parents were held hostage, shocked the world and terrified Russians. Although President Vladimir Putin came to office in 2000 declaring he would strengthen the state and restore Russia to prosperity, most of his countrymen have remained poor and grown ever more vulnerable. That vulnerability was made painfully clear after the hostage crisis, which ended in the deaths of more than 300 people, many of them children. Putin has few public critics. He has stifled the media and suppressed opposing political views.
Can Russia live with the consequences of those policies? Michael McFaul, who has lived in Russia and studied its politics, was online Monday, Sept. 13, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss that question and his Sunday Outlook article, State of Siege.
McFaul is a Hoover Fellow and associate professor of Political Science at Stanford University. With Nikolai Petrov and Andrey Ryabov, his most recent book is "Between Democracy and Dictatorship: Postcommunist Political Reform in Russia," (Carnegie 2004).
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Michael should be with us shortly. Apologies for the delay.
If not Putin, who? Is there anybody waiting in the wings capable of taking over once Putin leaves the scene?
Michael McFaul: No, not really. This is a problem in all systems that become too centralized. They do not generate new leaders. And just today, Putin announced that he plans to appoint governors rather than allowing them to be elected. This will eliminate another potential training ground for future leaders.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
Which is the greater threat to Russia's integrity, if not now, then in the future -- Islamic fundamentalists/separatists pushing up through the Caucasus "archipelago" or Chinese and other Asiatics pushing across the borders and settling in Siberia?
Like deserts perpetually attacking fertile regions, the Russian border is disappearing under the onslaught of these forces, yes?
And will Putin attempt Stalinist tactics to thwart these adversaries or will he go down and out with a whimper?
Michael McFaul: I do not think that "Osama bin Ladenism" or China are real threats to Russia's territorial integrity. It was never the case Chechen independence would lead to calls for REAL independence from other republics. Russians do fear the Chinese. And the demographics of Siberia means that Chinese will continue to migrate into Russia. But there are ways that the two countries can handle this migration without Russian losing territory. On the contrary, this miohis migration could be big plus to Russia just as Mexican migration into my state, California, has been very beneficial to our economy.
At the risk of sounding like a benighted American, I was a bit taken aback by the images of Putin when he was visiting the Beslan victims in the hospital: he looked like the grim reaper. It brought back memories to me of that awful PR stunt on Saddam Hussein's part right before the first Gulf War when he posed with some family of hostages, all of whom clearly looked scared to death.
I imagine who our own president or a more media-savvy president like Reagan or Clinton would have presented himself under similar circumstances. I would assume they would display some degree of humanity.
I know all the cliches about how Russians expect their leaders to be "strong," but I wonder if there has been any criticism of Putin on this account.
Michael McFaul: I agree. He did not project warmth. He is an accidental politician. Sometimes it shows.
I remember a few years ago Grigorii Yavlinsky ran ads during his presidential campaign depicting a concentration camp, and one of the inmates moans something to the effect of "I remember when we had a chance for democracy, but we voted for security." Is this looking prophetic?
Michael McFaul: Its too early to tell, but the trajectory is definitely not in the right direction. Moreover, I think there is real confusion about the relationship between "security" and "democracy.' They are not tradeoffs. There are lots of very secure democracies in the world and there are lots of very insecure autocracies. Dictators sometimes provide security for their citizens and sometimes do not.
With many groups trying to bridge the economic and scientific divides between the US and Russia, what impact will these events, and subsequent reactions, have on Russia's abilitiy to continue working with these groups, and the ability of the Russian scientific and business communities to attract U.S. investors and research partners?
Michael McFaul: Its an excellent question, to which I dont have an excellent answer. In the short run, I do not expect that there will be major disruptions of societal contacts (except of course in the areas of human rights, dmeocracy, and journalism, which have already experienced substantial interruptions. You may have see that one journalist was poisoned and another detained as they tried to get to Beslan to report on events). Over the long run, though, I do fear that a more autocratic states in Russia will be less friendly to such contacts.
Can Putin survive politically if he does not respond harshly to this terrorist attack on the school?
Michael McFaul: No. He needs to respond "harshly" or as I would put it "more effectively." Just talking tough , however, will not be enough for the Russian people anymore. His strategy in chechnya no longer enjoys majority support. His latest reforms, announced today, of appointing governors and changing the electoral law for the Duma, do not impress me as ways to fight terror, and my guess is that they wont impress the Russian people.
And there is one big contextual difference between Beslan and September 11th. Since September 11th, the United States has nnot been attacked on our soil again. But Beslan was simply the most horrific in a long line of attacks dating back to the fall of 1999. If the U.S. had been hit a dozen more times since September 11th, I think President Bush would also be losing support.
What is the origin and reason or cause of the Russian Chechen hatred?
Michael McFaul: This is a big, complex history, which I cannot cover in this space. See the books by John Dunlop and Anatol Lieven if you want to read more. But there are some key historical dates. More than two hundred years ago, the expanding Russian empire reached Chechnya and subjugated this ethnic group after a long and bitter war. Another key date in 1944 when Stalin shipped the entire Chechen population to Siberia, claiming that they were Nazi collaborators. Tends of thousands died in the process. Khrushchev allowed them to return in 1957, but others had taken their land by the time they returned. In December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chechen government declared their independence as well. However, Chechnya was part of the Russian Federation at the time (and still is) and was not one of the fifteen republics that did become independent when the Soviet Union disappeared. For three years, Chechnya enjoyed de facto independence, but Yeltsin tried to end that in December 1994. His military campaign to take control of the place failed, and in August 1996, Chechnya and Moscow signed an agreement that enede the war but did not decide the fate of the republic. Again for 3 years, from 1996-1999, Chechnya gained de facto autonomy from Russia, but the government in place at the time proved to be very weak, allowing warlords and bandits to gain considerable power. When one of the warlords, or I would call him a terrorist, went into Dagestan (a neghbioring republic which is part of the Russian Federation) in the summer of 1999, Prime Minister Putin pushed him out and then invaded Chechnya again. They have been fighting ever since. Western human rights groups estimate that 200,000 people have died in this war, including 40,000 children. By the way, See the excellent summary of this conflict in today's Washington Post by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who in my opinion have done some outstanding reporting on this tragedy in the last two weeks,
What do you think might be the consequences of
Putin's quasi-autocratic governance, viz., stifling
news media, ignoring human rights, etc. in terms of
increasing autocracy and/or increasing sufficient
rage in the Russian people to lead to rebellion?
Michael McFaul: See my book Between Democracy adn Dictoarship for the full answer. My short answer is that I do not expect rebellion anytime soon. Russians rebelled against the Soviet state fifteen years ago. They reall did; few in the West understans how large the protest was. And what were the results? Not very good. So, there is little enthusiasm for going back to the barricades now. This does not mean that Russians dont support democracy. My polls show that they do. It is a convenient myth for the Kremlin to pretend that they do not. But Russians right now are not willing to fight for their democratic rights. They are too tired of revolution.
Is Putin really a closet Stalinist trying to run Russia backwards to its hayday? Or is he really a reformer clearly out of his depth where managing a 12 timezone monster is concerned?
Either way, Russians lose.
Michael McFaul: Putin is not Stalin. I really do believe that he THINKS he is a reformer. He most certainly wants Russia to be a respected member of the Western community -- a European country. On economic policy, Putin has implemented some very important reforms. But on the political side, he fears those with other views. He does not take criticism well. And he fears autonomous sources of political power. And why should we surprised at this? Think of his educational training.
Ironically, this combination of wnting to be part of the West but not knowing how to do it creates some diplomatic opportuniteis for people like Bush. Putin really respects Bush. They have a close relationship. Bush could try to push Putin (quietly, not in public)in a more democratic direction. He could remind Putin that respected European powers are democracies. But Bush doesnt want to do this-- it an opportunity lost.
San Francisco, Calif.:
Is it in Putin's interest to ally with the U.S. and U.K. and use preemptive force on potential major sources of terror such as Iran and North Korea? Is it in Russia's best interest to do so?
Michael McFaul: It is most certainly in Putin's interest to be seen as an ally of the U.S. and U.K. in fighting terrorism. And the talk coming out of Moscow about preemptive strikes is very scary. But when Putin and his advisors talk about preemptive strikes, they have Georgia in mind, not Iran and North Korea. Putin will not support any military action against Iran or North Korea.
George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw George Bush looking back. How come these two fellow travelers haven't spent more energy and time together combating world terrorism as a joint venture?
Both seem to be playing their own cards close to the vest. Cooperation doesn't work that way.
Michael McFaul: I think its an excellent question. We should be doing a lot more togther and we are not. Perhaps most importantly, the Unied States should be devoting more resources to helping the Russians secure their nuclear stockpile. We have an excellent program in place to do so called Cooperative Threat Reduction or Nunn-Lugar (the nemas of the two senators who established it). But the budgets or this program have increased only marginally under the Bush adminstration. In fact, Bush wanted to cut the funding for Nunn-Lugar by $100 million and only reversed himself after 9-11. If the Russian satte is too weak to prevent tragedies like Beslan, why should we have any confidence that this same state can keep nuclear weapons and nuclear materiasl out of the hands of terrorists. We should be helping the Russian state do more, and we arent.
I wonder if giving Ilyas Akhmadov asylum was a good thing or not. We are either with them or with the terrorists.
What are your thoughts? Should we have given him asylum or not?
Michael McFaul: I do not know the exact details of this particular case. I can say, however, that painting the fight against terror in black and white terms will led to failure. Think for a moment about what we are doing in Afghanistan. If we treated everyone from Afghanistan as a terrorist becuase of what Osama bin Laden and the Taliban did to us, then we would have no allies inside the country now. My own sens is that very very few Chechens support in any way what happened in Beslan. To call them all terrorists, therefore, is incorrect. Most are nationalists, fighting for independence, and do not support the ideology of bin Laden. And most do not approve of such terrorists methods.
How would the U.S. government respond if Putin executed a pre-emptive strike on Georgia?
Michael McFaul: I hope that they would stand by the Georgian government. But I really fear such a development as the US govt will have little capacity to help the Georgians.
A few years ago the West was up in arms over the surreptitious power held by the "Oligarchs" in Russia. Seems to me that what is missing in the power equation right now is a few powerful, independent men who could withstand the Putin-KGB juggernaut.
I gather this is not lost on many Russians: the Russian joke site I read daily has had plenty of "anekdoty" comparing the state's pursuit of terror with its campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Michael McFaul: The oligarchs are no saints. They did many awful things in the 1990s. But you will not get a more law based state by using the law arbitrarily to arrest some and not others.
Until now, Russia, along with the rest of Europe, has been critical of the U.S. and Israeli terrorism countermeasures. Since Russia is now at war with Islamic terrorists, both internally and internationally, will there be a major change in Russia's foreign policy?
Michael McFaul: Putin, now more than ever, wants to be conisdered an ally of Bush;s in the war on terror. I wold not be surprised to see some changes in policy such as on Iran.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.:
In your article, you write that "Putin wrongly equated democracy with weakness and centralized authority with powerful rule." It seems to me that in many ways Russia is still a slave to its dictatorial past (Richard Pipes indicates such in his article in the May-June 2004 article in Foreign Affairs). Is this a fair assessment of Russia, Putin, and the current government? And if so, how can Russia move past the legacy of communism, centralization, and censorship?
Michael McFaul: Folks, this will be my last reply as I have to go talk on the radio about the same.
I do agree with Pipes. If people can never escape their authoritaian pasts, then we would still be singing God Save the Queen at baseball games. And I would say the saem for the French, Germans, Japanese, etc. Of course, the apst matters. Of course, it will take a long time to create democracy in Russia. But these ethnic stereoptypes are dangerous today, just as they were fifty years ago when people used to make the same arguments about Germans, Japanes, and Catholic countries. My own polling in Russia shows very clearly that the majority of Russians support democracy. They just are not ready to fight for it AGAIN since they are so disappointed in how it ended in the 1990s. In the long run, though, I am confident that Russia will become a democracy. When, however, I am not prepared to say.