October 25, 2004
October 14th marked the end of forty days of mourning in the town of Beslan for the more than 300 victims of the school siege. In the UK the period of interest was a good deal shorter- the media moving on to the latest horror stories in Iraq. However at the time there was intense focus with blanket television and newspaper coverage both during the siege and in the days afterwards. The following day across the country schoolchildren observed a minutes silence as did spectators at the weekends football matches. Whilst I was writing this piece a close friend emailed me to ask for information on Beslan as her younger sister's school class had been asked to make a webpage about the disaster as an IT project. There was also vociferous condemnation of the hostage takers from our political leaders accompanied by effusive declarations of sympathy and sorrow. Tony Blair was particularly unequivocal:
"We share Russia's grief in this dark hour for their country and particularly with the people of Beslan for the terrible atrocity they have suffered…We mourn with them and we express our total and complete solidarity." (1)
Of particular interest were the statements of Blair's foreign secretary Jack Straw who exclaimed that: "This is almost beyond belief…There are some things which happen amongst human kind which are almost inexplicable according to any basic moral norms - Nazism was and this is." (2)
Whilst these comments may be uncontroversial his remarks concerning the causes of the Beslan atrocity and terrorism more broadly were not so obvious. Speaking on BBC radio Straw cautioned that:
"Sometimes we are too swift to move away from the original and fundamental causes of such terrorism, namely the terrorists who perpetrated such an act, and shift away to other things - in a sense taking for granted their culpability." Straw remarked that this "shift away to other things" is "almost tasteless and it is disrespectful to the dead and the dying and their relatives…" (3)
Such statements merit some thought, both as to what they actually mean and what their broader implications are. Mr Straw compares the crimes in Beslan to the horrors of Nazism. Since he considers this an appropriate comparison perhaps it should be extended further. Regarding its causes Straw explains that terrorism is caused by…terrorists, ("the original and fundamental causes of such terrorism, namely the terrorists who perpetrated such an act"). Not perhaps the most insightful comment. It appears even less so when we consider the analogous example:
"the original and fundamental of such Nazi atrocities, namely the Nazis who carried them out."
Mr Straw's concern for the victims and their relatives is particularly hard to credit. I would presume that the best way to honour the victims of terrorism is to as swiftly as possible remedy the causes of such acts in order to prevent their repetition. Atrocities such as occurred in Beslan can it is true induce a sort of stupefaction, a paralysis in the face of their extreme horror. However whilst this might be a natural reaction we should recognise that it is one that has little moral value; especially when compared to the obvious alternative- rapidly moving to remedy the causes.
However it is analysis of the kind favoured by Mr Straw that is increasingly prevalent in the mass media. Attempts to understand terrorist outrages are widely perceived as attempts at justification. Commonly this is explained by stating that "there can be no justification for terrorism", and then taking this as licence to avoid the historical background and motivating factors. Alternatively the question of "justification" is not raised at all; instead the facts of a particular atrocity are baldly described and the historical context is almost completely excluded, leaving only the barest clues as to the fact that any exclusion has taken place. This kind of reporting typified the television coverage of Beslan. (4)
Fortunately this method has yet to be extended to other (and much worse) crimes. So for instance when school children learn about the Second World War they are encouraged to look into the social, economic and political circumstances that bred National Socialism: the Versailles treaty, the depression, Europe's history of anti-Semitism, business support for Hitler, and so on. Assuming the champions of the Jack Straw school of thought mean what they say and are interested in consistency we can perhaps look forward to the application of their methods to such areas. So in future school children may be discouraged from inquiring into the rise of Nazism and those that make the mistake of doing so will be denounced as apologists for genocide, and of being "disrespectful to the dead".
However if we are interested in understanding Beslan and pursuing ways that will reduce the likelihood of similar tragedies we should perhaps adopt the method used by schoolchildren rather than the one increasingly favoured by apparently educated media commentators. Furthermore if this method of analysis is good enough for understanding the Holocaust then I would presume that it is good enough for achieving understanding of far lesser atrocities such as the criminal disaster that occurred in Beslan.
In this case the major contributing factor is of course not hard to find; namely the extreme brutality of the war waged by the Russian federation against separatist Chechen rebels and the Chechen civilian population, which has left around 100,000 Chechen dead and the Chechen capital Grozny reduced to rubble. Russian forces have deliberately targeted civilians and are responsible for numerous massacres of civilians as well as widespread looting and rape. In June 2003 Russian officials admitted the existence of forty-nine mass graves containing the remains of some 3000 people. (5) As British historian Mark Curtis pointed out just a week before the first meeting between Blair and Putin the Observer carried a story on the massacre of 363 people in the village of Katyr Yurt, (a crime comparable to the Beslan disaster although not accompanied by solemn mourning and angry denunciations in the UK). The Observer described the aftermath of the Russian attack:
"The Observer…went to Katyr Yurt and saw what was left: a landscape as if from the Somme, streets smashed to matchwood, trees shredded, blood-stained cellars, the survivors in a frenzy of fear. The village was littered with the remains of Russian 'vacuum' bombs - fuel-air explosives that can suck your lungs inside out, their use against civilians banned by the Geneva Convention." (6)
Had proportionate airtime been devoted to the suffering of the Chechen people as has been devoted to the victims of the Beslan atrocity there would scarcely have been time for anything else on the news in recent years.
To inquire further into the causes of the Beslan atrocity we might care to look at the factors which allowed the atrocities in Chechnya to continue over such an extended period of time. A key factor, (and probably a critical one), was the absence of sustained pressure from the so-called "international community", an absence that sometimes merged into outright support for Russian policy. One of the most supportive of Western leaders has been the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Two weeks before the Russian Presidential elections in the year 2000 Blair visited the then acting president, Vladimir Putin. After talks the two men went on a sight seeing tour of St. Petersburg followed by an evening at the opera. The visit was widely interpreted in Russia as a sign of Britain's approval for the soon to be elected Putin and an endorsement of his brutal policy in Chechnya. The apparent triviality of Russian atrocities was made clear by Tony Blair's official spokesman who informed the press that "Russia is too important a country to ignore or isolate over Chechnya". (7)
Blair himself emphasized the insignificance of the war, explaining that it is "important to realise that Chechnya isn't Kosovo". (8) Blair was of course quite right in this instance; the numbers killed in Chechnya far exceeding the numbers attributed to the "genocidal" Milosevic. Moreover whilst the Kosovan capital Pristina may not be anyone's idea of a holiday destination, it does not at least resemble Dresden circa 1945. Two days before the first meeting between Blair and Putin a BBC reporter described the devastation in the Chechen capital as "breathtaking, with not a single building intact." (9)
On his return flight to England Blair was full of praise for Mr Putin declaring him to be "impressive" and "highly intelligent… with a focused view of what he wants to achieve in Russia." (10)
The following month Human Rights Watch wrote to Tony Blair informing him that:
"Your meeting with President-elect Putin last month in St. Petersburg signalled that Britain was eager to play a leading role in developing a strong relationship with Russia in the post-Yeltsin era, but that it was unwilling to use this relationship as leverage to secure better human rights compliance by the Russian government" (11)
The same month as Blair's visit the horror of the Russian campaign in Chechnya was becoming increasingly apparent. Had Mr Blair been remotely interested in the vicious terrorism practised by the "impressive" Putin a quick perusal of the British press in the weeks prior to his visit would have answered any questions. Throughout March there were stories on the release of the Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky - arrested in Chechnya by Russian troops, tortured and held in one of the notorious Russian "filtration camps". Babitsky was interviewed by The Times on March 14th:
"Andrei Babitsky knew he was in serious trouble when he told the prisoners in the next cell that he was going to slit open a vein to attract the guard's attention. Maybe it would get them all moved to somewhere less hellish, he said, but the prisoners advised against it. They told him that he would simply bleed to death unnoticed." (12)
Babitsky then described his induction into the camp:
"They start beating you as soon as the truck stops in the yard…then you have to pass along a barbed wire corridor. Everyone was beaten by guards with truncheons. Inside we were strip-searched again and possessions of any value were taken. Sixteen of us were put in a single cell with seven mattresses, so we had to sleep in shifts. When awake we had to stand with our arms above our heads… On the first day they sprayed teargas through the keyhole. For 20 minutes it was almost impossible to breathe. To make it bearable I urinated on my sweater and breathed through that."
However Babitsky explained that he "wasn't too worried. I knew I was being treated lightly because I was a journalist." (13)
In an interview with the Sunday Times on March 5th he described the condition of his fellow inmates:
"I was kept in a chamber 17 together with 13 young Chechens… They had all been severely beaten. One of them had only one tooth left. Another looked as if his entire body had been broken and would never function properly again…" (14)
In a news brief on the 30th March the Times reported on the network of prison camps the Russians have established across Chechnya:
"The "filtration" camp at Chernokozovo, north of Grozny… has become infamous. But, according to Amnesty, camps also exist in the town of Urus Martan and in the villages of Znamenskoye, Tolstoi Yurt and Goragorsk. Two more are located in the Leninsky district of Grozny… At Chernokozovo, Chechen civilians continue to suffer despite official claims to the contrary. Amnesty obtained evidence that a 14-year-old girl was taken off a bus at a Russian checkpoint. She was repeatedly raped and tortured by camp guards and died as a result… men, women and children have been raped, beaten with hammers and clubs, and tortured with electric shocks and tear gas. Some have teeth sawn off and are sometimes beaten around both ears to burst eardrums." (15)
A month earlier The Times carried a story on the destruction of Grozny's House of the Blind- the only hospital of its type in all of Chechnya. Despite sporting white flags the building was heavily bombed by the Russians. In February 2000 only 30 residents out of 400 remained- they survived by hiding in the cellar, later emerging into the devastated building. Several residents were interviewed by The Times:
"All of their touch marks - the doorsteps and the exits that they used to know to manoeuvre their way around - are gone," says Marina Sergeyeva, 34, the librarian. Her library, with its statues of Pushkin, Checkov, Turgenev and Mayakovsky, is now, thanks to the Russian bombers, a piled heap of the braille books and books on tape that she had worked so hard to acquire. "We didn't have much before," she says, picking up a braille book. "Now we have even less"… "To be honest with you, I don't expect anything to happen in the next year or two," says Nurdi Belershemenkhov, a Chechen who lost his sight in a car crash when he was 28. His tinted sunglasses are held on his head by a dirty shoelace and he has a bad cough from weeks of living underground. "Life teaches you not to expect good things. I've been waiting my whole life for good things to happen. I guess now they won't." (16)
Following his Blair endorsed victory in the Presidential election Putin returned the favour - making a trip to London his first presidential visit to the West. Responding to the concerns of demonstrators who had arrived to greet the Russian president Blair's official spokesman Alistair Campbell informed the BBC that Tony Blair was "not going to apologise for developing a good relationship with an important world leader." (17) Talks with Blair were followed by tea with the Queen. The semi-independent Russian media were elated by the visit; according to Itar-Tass:
"Putin's reception by the Queen is not only a sign of her special attention to Russia, but also a signal for the whole world that the Russian leader is one of the most influential and respected international politicians." (18)
TV6 explained that "London is being offered the exclusive role of the bridge between Moscow and the West, and it looks like the British don't object." (19)
In November 2000 the two leaders met again, this time in Moscow. The wholly independent British press was most excited by the apparent bonhomie between the two
leaders: "Call it the Blair Effect. So powerful is the chemistry between Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin that, as they stand side by side, the Russian president relaxes, drops his usual mask of inscrutability and speaks his mind with chilling passion." (20)
The next day the Telegraph was again in romantic mood:
"President Putin, the iceman of Russian politics, turned positively skittish in the company of Tony Blair yesterday during a Moscow summit which was short on substance but long on mutual admiration.
The two men exchanged fulsome compliments in public and avoided anything that put at risk their personal rapport.
The Russian leader, not known as a raconteur, even cracked a rare joke in the Prime Minister's honour… Since they first met, Mr Blair's presence has always had a strange, liberating effect on the Russian president, encouraging him to throw caution - and protocol - to the wind.
As the first western politician to try to bond with Mr Putin, Mr Blair retains a special place in the Russian's affections." (21)
Whilst Blair and Putin were swapping jokes and compliments in the Kremlin Putin's army was busy in the Caucuses. Addressing the Council of Europe Oleg Orlov, representing the Russian Memorial human rights group, described one of the many exploits of Russian federal troops during the autumn of 2000:
"On 24th November, on a road leading to the village of Davidenko, a military vehicle triggered a land-mine - one soldier was killed and two were wounded. Soon after this event, close to the scene of the explosion, an inhabitant of this village, Hussain Gasiyev stepped off a passenger bus. In the presence of the other passengers on the bus, soldiers arrested Gasiyev, placed a hood over his head, seated him in an armed military vehicle and transported him to an unknown location. On 24th November, the body of Hussain Gasiyev was discovered on the outskirts of the village of Davidenko. His nose had been cut off, his eyes had been poked-out and on his neck was evidence of a deep knife-wound, the upper part of his head was simply a mash of flesh and bones and his wrists and fingers had all been broken." (22)
In spite of such horrors in June of last year Britain honoured Putin with a full state visit, an honour never bestowed upon Gorbachev, nor Yeltsin- Putin's predecessor. Indeed the last Russian head of state to make a state visit was Tsar Nicholas I in 1844. Human Rights Watch wrote to Tony Blair informing him that:
"research and government statistics confirm that the human rights situation is worsening, not improving…at least two people "disappear" every day." Moreover "Not a single forced disappearance case has reached the courts." (23)
During his visit Putin had the pleasure of visiting Edinburgh, a city roughly the same size as Grozny, though rather more picturesque. Whilst there Putin met with Jack McConnell Scotland's first minister who evidently took great pride in the visit- explaining to the press that: "His visit clearly demonstrates that the post-devolution profile of Scotland has dramatically increased. … This is something that we must build on. I believe that Scotland is rediscovering its international identity." (24)
What his visitor's actions had done for Chechnya's international identity he did not say.
As part of the state occasion Mr Putin had the pleasure of a ceremonial open top carriage ride through the streets of London with the Queen who later informed Mr Putin that the partnership between Britain and Russia is of "profound importance":
"My message to you, Mr President, is therefore one of admiration, respect and support." (25)
In March 2003 Putin forced through a referendum changing the Chechen constitution. According to the new constitution the Chechens would give up their struggle for independence in return for very limited autonomy. The referendum, carried out under martial law whilst disappearances and killings continued, was widely condemned, and considered so farcical that no monitoring group agreed to send observers. The new constitution was passed in a vote with an 85% turnout- though witnesses described empty polling stations and The Council of Europe's special representative on Chechnya resigned in protest. Tony Blair however was full of praise for Putin's "democratic" initiative:
"Russia is absolutely right in trying to solve [the problem] through political dialogue. The referendum is a good step forward." (26)
Human Rights Watch however condemned Blair's endorsement:
"your favourable comment on the March referendum, delivered amid a wave of unmerited praise by European and American officials, belied the atrocious circumstances in which the referendum was held and in which ordinary Chechens continue to live." (27)
In parallel to the increase in British support for Putin, economic ties between Russia and Britain also grew, (though surely only conspiracy theorists would perceive any link between the two). In 2003 UK exports to Russia totalled £1,416.7bn - an increase of 43% on the previous year. Britain invests some US$ 4.6bn representing 15% of total investment in the Russian federation, making Britain the number one investor in the country. (28) During the state visit of last year Blair and Putin helped broker a £4.3 billion deal between British Petroleum and the Russian TNK oil firm, a firm accused of extortion and racketeering. (29) BP of course is run by Labour peer Lord Browne, a close friend of Mr Blair, and employs several key Blairites including Anji Hunter, Blair's former gatekeeper at No 10.
At a banquet at London's Guildhall during his state visit Putin was toasted by the Lord Mayor:
"Tonight is a celebration…A celebration of the friendship between the United Kingdom and Russia and a celebration of the confidence we have in Russia's future following the economic resurgence of the last few years; and a celebration of the ever-closer trading and investment links between the City of London and your country." (30)
Mr Blair has repeatedly gone out of his way to defend the actions and policies of President Putin. Following September 11th he was quick to equate the Chechen separatists with al-Qaeda - likening the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings to the attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon: telling journalists that "People sometimes forget there were hundreds killed in Moscow before September 11," (31)
This apparently left Putin looking "surprised and grateful" (32)
Blair's equation of the two was particularly striking since there is evidence suggesting that the apartment bombings were carried out by Russian security services in order to provide a pretext for Putin's invasion of Chechnya. (33)
On another occasion Blair claimed that Chechen fighters had been operating in Iraq alongside the other, (mostly mythical), foreign fighters. (34) Blair offered no evidence for this claim, and none has been forthcoming since. This assertion which undoubtedly delighted Putin was one of many similar attempts by Blair to equate all national liberation struggles with Islamic terrorism; a tactic cynically employed by elite elements the world over- from Washington to London, via Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Islamabad and New Delhi. It is some mercy that the ceasefire in Northern Ireland continues otherwise we would perhaps have been subjected to Mr Blair regaling us all with tales of IRA car bombings in the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad.
Whilst human rights group have consistently reported either stasis or decline in the behaviour of Russian forces Blair has done essentially nothing aside from occasionally "raising human rights concerns" with his Russian counterpart. Instead as Mark Curtis points out- it is the Russians who have taken strong measures against us:
"it was Russia not Britain that used the levers available to press the other side. The Ministry of Defence noted that 'our developing military relationship, based on high level contacts and exchanges, suffered a setback' in 1999 - not due to British pressure over Chechnya, but because of Russian opposition to the attacks on Iraq in December 1998 and on Yugoslavia. Russia had begun 'by scaling down contacts and then cancelling all bilateral military events planned with the UK'. (35)
Whilst Blair's support helps the atrocities in Chechnya to continue it is also of little service to the Russian civilian population for whom he professes so much concern. Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denbar described the behaviour of Russian veterans who return home with the skills they acquire in the Chechen Republic.
"Tens of thousands of police and security forces have done tours of duty in Chechnya, after which they return to their home regions, bringing with them learned patterns of brutality and impunity. Several Russian human rights groups have begun to note a "Chechen syndrome" among police who served in Chechnya - a particular pattern of physical abuse and other dehumanising treatment of people in custody. Russians already face serious risk of torture in police custody. The Chechnya experience is thus undermining efforts to promote the rule of law in Russia's criminal justice system." (36)
In the end it should be recognised that Jack Straw's equation of the Beslan terrorists with the Nazis is not appropriate. Whilst the crimes of the Nazis eclipsed those that led to the rise of National Socialism the same cannot be said for the Beslan terrorists and other Chechen groups who, despite their best efforts, have not even come close to matching the achievements of Vladimir Putin, never mind eclipsing them. So in a sense even to enter into the debate surrounding the solution to Chechen terrorism is almost to concede too much. As with most other acts of "retail" terrorism it should be understood as a subsidiary matter derivative of the far greater terror conducted by the State. Secondarily from a moral standpoint it is largely of only academic consequence since we are not in a position to do very much about it, (except indirectly through our influence on Russia). In the case of the vastly worse crimes of the Russian army however there is something we can do: namely withdraw our support. However as long as British economic and military interests remain tied to the Russian federation, and so long as there is little domestic pressure to end our support for Russian policy there is little reason to believe that Britain's particular contribution to the horrors in Chechnya will end any time soon.
1. Associated Press, 7 Sept 2004
2. BBC online, 6 Sept 2004
4. Print media was a good deal better although it should be remembered that the majority of people in the UK get their news from the TV.
5. Human Rights Watch, 20 June 2003
6. The Observer 5 March 2000
7. Eurasia MONITOR, 13 March 2000
9. BBC online 11 March 2000.
10. Eurasia MONITOR, 13 March 2000
11. Human Rights Watch, 12 April 2000)
12. The Times, 14 March 2000
14. The Sunday Times, 5 March 2000
15. The Times, 30 March 2000
16. The Times, 15 March 2000
17. The Guardian 17 April 2000
18. BBC Monitoring 18 April 2000
19. BBC monitoring, 18 April 2000
20. The Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2000
21. The Daily Telegraph, 22 November 2000
22. Address given by Oleg Orlov, Representative of the HRC 'Memorial' at the Meeting of the Committee for Legal Affairs and Human Rights Council of Europe
in Paris, December 2000.
24. BBC Online, 25 June 2003
26. The Observer, 1 June 1 2003
28. See this website
30. Daily Telegraph, 26 June 2003
31. Eurasia Monitor Volume 8 issue 2 January 3rd, 2002
33. See Mark Curtis, 'Web of Deceit: Britain's real role in the world', Vintage 2003
35. Mark Curtis, 'Web of Deceit: Britain's real role in the world', Vintage 2003
37. Guardian 1 March 2000