The Beslan hostage tragedy has the potential to spark upheaval across the Caucasus, political analysts in Moscow are saying. Some influential commentators warn the Kremlin must alter its security approach toward the region. However, President Vladimir Putin appears intent on tightening Russia's security apparatus, rather than reexamining existing policies.
The death toll from the hostage crisis in North Ossetian town of Beslan exceeds 350. Beyond that, facts related to the three-day ordeal remain sketchy. Russian authorities said initially there were about 350 hostages, when it turned out that there were over 1,000 held in the Beslan school. Later, Russian officials claimed that 10 of the hostage-takers killed on September 3 were "Arabs." Yet, evidence to substantiate the claim has not been produced. There has also been conflicting statements about the number and the fate of the hostage-takers. At first, there were reports that some of the militants might have escaped. For a brief interval, Russian authorities insisted all the militants had died during the frenzied final hours of the hostage drama. But on September 5 a man purported to be a hostage taker was paraded on Russian television.
Confronted with what is by any measure a glaring failure of the Kremlin's efforts to stabilize the Caucasus - a region that has been a cauldron of ethnic and political discontent going back to the late 1980s Putin has resorted to blaming the policy implementers, and not the policy itself, for the breakdown. "We have to admit we showed no understanding of the danger of the processes occurring in our country and the world at large," Putin said in a televised address September 4. "We failed to react appropriately to them and, instead, displayed weakness. And the weak are beaten."
Putin in his televised address showed no inclination to explore the nuances that are driving the violence in the Caucasus, specifically the origins and the dynamic of the Chechen conflict, which, under Moscow's mismanagement, has become infused with a volatile radical Islamic element that encourages the use of terrorist tactics. Instead, Putin ordered Russian security agencies to build "a new system of forces and means for exercising control over the situation in the North Caucasus."
In an interview published September 7 by the British newspaper The Guardian, Putin ruled out a public inquiry into the Beslan crisis, adding that the government would not engage in talks with "child killers." While ruling out a public report, Putin said that an internal Kremlin investigation would be carried out so that he could "establish the chronicle of events and find out who is responsible and might be punished."
Political analysts have long warned about the spread of instability from war-torn Chechnya to other areas of Russia's North Caucasus region. A recent string of terrorist acts starting with a June raid in Ingushetia and stretching to the Beslan tragedy -- underscores the fact that the Kremlin has failed to contain the Chechen conflict, some regional experts say.
Not only is the North Caucasus combustible, Russia is simultaneously confronting a political dilemma in the South Caucasus, namely in Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is striving to reestablish Tbilisi's authority over the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has long acted as the de facto protector of the two regions' separatist ambitions. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Russia is actually facing a whole range of multi-vector threats coming from the Caucasus Range," the Izvestia daily noted in a recent commentary.
Russian security experts warn the Beslan attack, and the Kremlin's reaction to the tragedy, can ignite instability all across Russia's southern flank. Already, South Ossetia has teetered in recent weeks on the brink of renewed conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Now, North Ossetia has the potential to turn into a "Russian Bosnia," some analysts say, a reference to the Balkan state that disintegrated amid ethnic warfare in the mid 1990s.
Two types of conflicts can erupt at any moment: an ethnic and religious conflict between Christian Ossetians and Muslim Ingush; and an ethno-territorial struggle between Georgians and Ossetians. Analysts are most concerned about the danger of the hostage tragedy provoking a fresh Ossetian-Ingush clash. The two nations have coexisted uneasily for decades.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ossetians and Ingush fought a brief, bloody conflict over disputed land in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia. Those clashes resulted in an estimated 600 deaths, and the expulsion of almost all of the approximately 35,000 Ingush then living in the area. In recent years, about 15,000 Ingush returned to the Prigorodny district, their presence warily tolerated by Ossetians.
Unconfirmed reports that some of the Beslan hostage takers were Ingush holds the potential to shatter the precarious peace between the two nationalities. North Ossetians are convinced that the Ingush constituted the bulk of the attackers, a North Ossetian government official told the Russky Kuryer newspaper. "Basically no one in the republic is talking about the Chechens," the newspaper quoted the official as saying. According to Sergei Arutyunov, the head of the Caucasus Department at the Moscow-based Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, "the conflict in the Prigorodny region could resume and this could lead to a huge amount of bloodshed."
The Beslan tragedy is also stoking antagonism between Russia and Georgia. The two countries have traded rancorous rhetorical volleys on the South Ossetia issue for much of the summer. Now, Russia and Georgia are sparring over the detention of two Georgian journalists, who were seized as they were trying to cover the fallout from the Beslan events.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry has described Russia's detention of the Georgian news crew as "outrageous." Russian authorities claim the two Georgian journalists entered Russia improperly. On September 6, a Russian court ordered the two Georgians to remain in custody. A statement issued by Georgian MPs September 7 cautioned that "If the Russian political elite does not pay attention to this issue, we will consider that Russia is politically persecuting the Georgian journalists," the Civil Georgia web site reported.
While there is a consensus in Russia's policy-making community that the dual tension in North and South Ossetia presents a grave threat to Russia's security, experts disagree on how Moscow should handle developments. Some hawkish political analysts are urging Russia to get tough with Georgia. One Kremlin-connected observer, Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Effective Policy Foundation, told the Russky Zhurnal website; those who planned a terrorist act in Beslan wouldn't have chosen North Ossetia as a target if Saakashvili hadn't "unfrozen the Ossetian issue."
In sharp contrast, a significant number of experts are urging the Kremlin to seek an accommodation with Tbilisi on the South Ossetia issue. The conflict-fraught situation in North Ossetia, Arutyunov told the Vremya Novostei daily, should prompt Russia to press for a rapid settlement of the South Ossetia issue. The end result of this process, Arutyunov contends, should be full-fledged and internationally guaranteed autonomy of South Ossetia within Georgia. For Moscow, he continues, Tbilisi's friendship and assistance are absolutely necessary to contain the potential for violence in the North Caucasus.
Liberal-minded regional specialists say urgent changes are needed in the Kremlin's Caucasus strategy, warning the consequences of maintaining Russia's current policies could prove "catastrophic." The mere revamping and strengthening of security forces, as Putin demands, will not help Russia meet the challenges it faces in its southern underbelly, they say. "If there are no [policy] changes, Russia will be drawn into the endless war with terrorists and will suffer one defeat after the other," the liberal Russian lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov argues in a commentary published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.