Deeper Than Oil: Beslan – an inconvenient anniversary

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
Last week saw the seventh anniversary of the start of the Beslan school siege, the second deadliest terrorist attack in modern history outside of the Middle East. But Russian media coverage and political reaction was oddly muted.

Last week saw the seventh anniversary of the start of the Beslan school siege, the second deadliest terrorist attack in modern history outside of the Middle East. But Russian media coverage and political reaction was oddly muted.

The day, as it is every year, was met with mourning ceremonies in North Ossetia, the tiny Caucasus republic where militants acting on the orders of Chechen separatist Shamil Basayev struck on September 1, 2004. But in Moscow the anniversary passed almost unnoticed. Most people I spoke to weren’t even aware of it.

There certainly wasn’t anything like the attention paid to the annual commemoration of an attack on another group of Ossetians in August 2008, when Georgian forces launched a surprise assault on South Ossetia.

But then, that’s hardly surprising. After all, Russia won that subsequent war, and the anniversary is – partly – an excuse to indulge in a bit of triumphalism and the traditional mocking of tie-guzzling Georgia leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

Beslan is a lot more inconvenient for the Kremlin.

Seven years on from the massacre of the innocents in North Ossetia, the investigation into the attack has yet to be concluded. Many uncomfortable questions remain unanswered, despite a parliamentary commission report that was released in late 2006.

While there were acts of genuine heroism among those involved in the rescue operation, there were also suggestions that force had been used far too early and excessively given that the militants were holding over 1,000 hostages, many of them small children.

Witnesses at the trial of the only militant known to have survived, Nurpashi Kulayev, said that many hostages had been killed by napalm and tank fire employed by federal forces.

A report by North Ossetian lawmakers concluded that grenade launchers, flame-throwers and tanks had been used during the operation. The parliamentary commission first denied that flame-throwers had been used. It later admitted they had, but only after tubes found near the school were presented in court. As for the tanks, the parliamentary commission said they had been employed, but only against those parts of the building that contained no hostages.

Independent experts, including dissenting parliamentary commission member and weapons expert Yury Savelyev, questioned the findings of the commission. Savelyev also said that an MI-24 attack helicopter had been used in the operation.

All of this adds up to, if not a callous disregard for human life on the behalf of the authorities, then at the very least a serious case of negligence. But the Russian special forces have never been renowned for their subtlety. Two years earlier, 130 hostages had died in Moscow after poison gas was pumped into the theater where they were being held by Chechen separatists.

Savelyev also said that the explosion that signaled the bloody conclusion to the siege had been caused by grenades launched by special forces and that it was this that caused the blaze that took the lives of scores of hostages.

The parliamentary commission said the blast was caused by a militant bomb. Its head, Alexander Torshin, accused Savelyev of falsifying the facts and playing political games.

But a video cassette handed over to the Mothers of Beslan pressure group three years after the siege featured interviews with sappers whose statements supported Savelyev's version of events. The North Ossetian prosecutor had earlier said it had "lost" the cassette.

There were also claims, including by the respected opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, that some of the militants had strong links to the Russian security services. Indeed, many – wanted criminals – were said to have been walking freely around their home villages in the months beforehand. Novaya Gazeta also obtained police documents that showed the authorities had received clear warnings that the attack was about to take place. No action was taken.

In the months after the siege, the Mothers of Beslan pressure group started independently seeking the answers to some of these questions, all of them highly inconvenient and potentially damaging for the Kremlin. The grieving mothers subsequently caused a sensation when they accused Vladimir Putin’s government of incompetence over the handling of the Beslan crisis.

For a while, the Mothers of Beslan enjoyed massive respect and authority across Russia. The whole country looked up to them. They started to seriously attack the authorities over the way they had dealt with the siege and their apparent total disregard for the lives of Russian men, woman and children. As journalist Vladimir Vorsobin told me, “They could have done what they wanted with Putin.” That threat – obviously – had to be neutralized. But how?

That was when things took a turn for the bizarre.

Members of the Mothers of Beslan say that the authorities subsequently attempted to discredit and divide the group through the use of Grigory Grabovoi, a self-proclaimed messiah and psychic who in 2005 offered to resurrect the victims of the siege. There is no proof of the allegations, but after Grabovoi began his “resurrection seminars” with some of the bereaved women, the group splintered.

As Ella Kyesaeva, one of the Mothers of Beslan who failed to be persuaded by Grabovoi’s claims of otherworldly powers, stated in an interview with the Russian Kommersant paper, “When our women went to Moscow and came back with the slogan, ‘Our children will be resurrected,’ everyone thought that we had all gone out of our minds. And that means that they just stopped listening to us completely. The authorities had decided to neutralize us.”

But I wasn’t entirely convinced. Even if the group was a threat to the Russian authorities, how did the news that they had taken a chance on Grabovoi’s dubious powers harm their reputation? Surely the public must have realized that the Beslan women were being manipulated by a heartless fraudster? It just didn’t seem an effective way to discredit your enemies.

“It was very effective,” Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina told me when I investigated the story further in 2009. “The Mothers of Beslan were insisting that our special forces, and not the terrorists, caused the first explosions when they began their attack. But after their involvement with Grabovoi, they were immediately labelled crazy. You should understand that they were seeking to take very high-up figures to court; we are talking here about Vladimir Putin and FSB generals.”

She also said that “sources” had told her that Putin’s approval was sought before Grabovoi’s arrest, following a public outcry over his activities.

Was Grabovoi a Kremlin pawn? There’s no way to tell for sure. I’d love to ask him, but since his release from jail last year, no one has seen or heard anything of him.

As for the investigation into the siege, Beslan Mothers head Susanna Dudiyeva met with President Medvedev in June to discuss the lack of progress. Medvedev - a former lawyer - said he would use his legal training to examine the official investigation, which is still not complete. Three months on, there have been no developments. "The investigation has basically stopped,” Dudiyeva said.

It’s unlikely to resume in the near future. After all, it’s not the kind of thing you want potential voters discussing with parliamentary and presidential elections coming up.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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