MOSCOW, Sept. 12 -- The broken and burned bodies of children had just been pulled from the wreckage of a small-town school. All Russia was in mourning. And President Vladimir Putin was quietly furious.
Over tea and cakes at his country retreat, he kept a group of visitors past midnight last week, intent on making them understand why the long-running war in Chechnya had triggered the bloodbath in nearby Beslan. The war was not his fault, he said, but the failure of "weak leaders" in the 1990s and mistakes that "I would not have made."
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Chechnya war is the fault of "weak leaders" in the 1990s.
(ITAR-Tass via Reuters)
Live, 11 a.m. ET: Michael McFaul, Hoover Fellow and associate professor of political science at Stanford University, discusses his article about how the Beslan school massacre illustrates the flawed policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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"No one," he added insistently, "can blame us for inflexibility with the people of Chechnya."
For Putin, Chechnya has become a trap he cannot escape. In 1999, he promised Russians a two-week war that would crush the separatist enemy. Instead, he has given them an endless struggle that haunts his presidency, a guerrilla conflict generating a wave of terrorism that has killed about 450 people in the last month and 1,000 over two years. In private, according to people who have spoken with him, the normally cool former KGB officer rails in frustration at his inability to halt the violence and responds with seething anger to those who question his approach.
While he portrays his policy as flexible, a review of the last five years shows that Putin never really wavered from the tough, no-compromise course he set in 1999 as prime minister when he vowed to "wipe them out in the outhouse." Every time he flirted with new approaches, according to interviews with politicians, analysts and presidential advisers, Putin would turn back to the same formula.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Beslan, some advisers consider it time for a frank reassessment, an admission that the conflict appears to be spreading across the volatile North Caucasus region.
"We must change our approach to the policy in the North Caucasus," Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Putin's top adviser on Chechnya, said in an interview. "The terrorists learn from the mistakes we make."
Yet Putin appears to have few, if any, obvious options left. Like President Bush, he is fighting a shadowy enemy that has eluded pursuers for years. But unlike Bush, Putin faces foes who are mostly citizens of his country and who have turned to terrorism in a struggle rooted in nationalist aspirations and centuries of repression. After Putin spoke to a stunned, grieving nation a week ago, aides acknowledged he had no concrete solutions. "Nobody in the world has found a way to fight terrorism effectively 100 percent," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov. "Nobody."
The path from Putin's ascension five years ago last month to the massacre in Beslan was marked with potential turning points. He toyed with negotiations with separatist leaders, only to abandon them. He vowed to end human rights abuses of Chechen civilians, only to fail to follow through. He promised genuine democratic institutions in Chechnya, only to allow his officials to rig two presidential elections.
"He got on the rail from the very beginning and he's been taking the railroad all the way down here," said Dmitri Oreshkin, director of the Mercator Group, a Moscow analytical organization. "He might give you the impression of a person who's trying to change it. It looks like he feels pain when people talk about the Beslan crisis as much as when they talk about the Chechen crisis. In reality, he never really tried to revisit his policy."
"Unfortunately, the same mistake was made again and again and again," said Malik Saidullayev, a Chechen businessman who was twice prevented from running for regional president by the Kremlin. "Russia kept choosing the same option -- force. Force cannot work."
The story of how Beslan happened also reflects what former Kremlin adviser Marat Gelman called "the end of politics" in Putin's Russia. While the war festered in the south, Putin succeeded in eliminating meaningful political dissent in Moscow. Now polls show most Russians favor peace talks over war, yet no effective opposition remains to push the views into public dialogue.
"There is no political debate in this country and this is the key problem," said Grigory Yavlinsky, an early critic of the Chechen war whose pro-Western democratic party, Yabloko, was ousted from parliament in elections last year. "The problem is, the authorities have no ear. They not only don't listen, they don't hear any voices. And the people feel themselves in absolute despair because they're not represented."
Power Over Finesse
The day after the Beslan standoff culminated in a bloody battle that left hundreds of hostages dead, Putin went on the air to address the nation. For a moment, he seemed to acknowledge that his policy had failed. But then he concluded he simply had not been tough enough.