The Russian government’s appalling record in Chechnya since 1994 has been well documented. Around 100,000 civilians are reported to have been killed in the first Chechen War between 1994 and 1996. Since Putin became Prime Minister in 1999 he has refused to recognize the democratically elected Chechen presidency of Aslan Maskhadov, has imposed a succession of Moscow puppets in his place and has intensified Russian military action in the region. Around 200,000 Chechens have been displaced during this time and human rights organizations report torture, mutilation and mass graves. Russian intelligence agents were implicated in the murder of former President Yandarbiyev in Qatar in February, and in August Alu Alkhanov became the latest Kremlin man to become Chechen president in a strongly disputed election, replacing the recently assassinated President Kadyrov.
And what does this have to do with the Beslan school siege?
Nothing. Or at least it should have nothing to do with it. The horror at Beslan is an evil which should stand alone, as all atrocities should. So why have I read and listened to people saying “the school siege is terrible, but…”.
Some people have been motivated by the fact that this is a foreign tragedy, and has nothing to do with us, although one cannot help but remember the news reports following the Dunblane tragedy, and how letters of sympathy came from all around the world.
Others have stated that, for example, little attention was given to the slaughter of 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees in Burundi in August, an action which is all too reminiscent of the Rwanda genocide. This is true, but hardly suggests we then shouldn’t cover a similar tragedy in Russia.
But most of the “but…” people have seized on the actions by the Russians, as if to suggest, in not so many words, that Russia has had it coming to them, that what can you expect if you carry out a policy of brutality in any region. Similar opinions were expressed after 9/11, and clearly they should be, and are, rejected by most people.
If there is one lesson of History it is that we should try and forget History. Russia’s actions in Chechnya do not legitimise to any degree the terror in North Ossetia, no more than the many appalling terrorist acts by the Chechen rebels justify the catalogue of Russian wrongdoing listed in my opening paragraph. The lessons from the Balkans, to the Gaza Strip, to Northern Ireland is surely that unless we forget the events of the past then the cycle of violence will never be broken. We should not be soft on terrorism; the guilty of Beslan should be brought to justice, but neither should fresh atrocities be be invoked in its name.
We will have to see what happens next. Feelings of revenge will run high, and Putin’s reputation suggests he will not fight these emotions. Whether he will throw away the international goodwill shown to Russia, as President Bush did after 9/11, remains to be seen, but I fear the worst. One thing is certain however. If the next few weeks see an upsurge in Russian brutality in Chechnya, then that too should be unequivocally denounced, with no reference to Beslan.
Whatever happens though, the chilling events at School Number 1 should be viewed as an attack upon humanity itself. Full stop. And there are no buts.