AFTER BESLAN: NOTES ON THE COVERAGE (3)
On Friday, Sept. 10, 2004, The Christian Science Monitor ran a story that wasn't just soft on President Putin and the FSB - it was groundlessly optimistic about the steps the Russian leadership would be likely to take after the tragedies of the past two weeks ("Russia Shapes Plan of Attack" by SCOTT PETERSON):
President Vladimir Putin refuses to meet with top Chechen separatist leaders, whom he holds responsible for a wave of terror that includes two downed passenger jets, a suicide bomb in Moscow, and the hostage crisis. But analysts say that Mr. Putin may offer far broader autonomy to Chechnya, which adds up to "de facto independence," according to American experts who took part in a 3 1/2-hour meeting with the Russian leader.
This forecast turned out to be naive, even silly: three days after this piece appeared, on Monday, Sept. 13, Putin ordered a drastic political overhaul, which, many say, is unconstitutional, would do little to prevent further terrorist attacks and would make this country resemble the Soviet Union more than ever before in the past decade or so. Even George W. Bush was urged to speak up: he urged Putin to "uphold the principles of democracy."
Allegedly, Putin spoke of granting "maximum autonomy" to Chechnya at the meeting, about which The Christian Science Monitor reported no details whatsoever, except for its impressive length, three and a half hours, and its date, Monday, Sept. 6. But a week later, Putin announced radical political measures aimed at limiting - not expanding - the autonomy of Russia's 89 regions, including Chechnya. Maybe he wasn't really lying to his audience - maybe they just had a lousy translator or something.
"He's not going to deal with a group of fighters who carry out terror attacks ... He wants to annihilate the radicals," says Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who met with Putin on Monday.
Putin offered "maximum autonomy, even to the point of violating the Russian constitution," says Ms. Hill. "Does he have something down in a blueprint? I don't know. But I would say give him the benefit of the doubt for now, and see what he does."
If nothing else, the experts have sure been paying close attention to Putin's appearance:
"Certainly the veins on his skull bulge when he talks about [autonomy]," says Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Foundation, who also attended the Putin meeting. "He spoke about expanding the dialogue and drawing in groups that have not been included before."
To some of them, he looked like a man deserving some sympathy:
Finding those groups will not be easy. "[Putin's] been thinking hard, and looks like an alarmed man who has his back up against the wall," says Hill. "He needs help on border security, on intelligence gathering because they just don't have the capacity anymore. This is the kind of job the FSB [formerly the KGB] used to do."
As for the threat of Russia carrying out "preemptive strikes ... to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world" - the experts have more or less agreed this wasn't something to worry about too much:
"You always get this wave of macho talk about how we're going to do this and do that, in order to show that the military is still worth it," says Anatol Lieven, author of "Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power,"at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. [...]
"They are saying that what's good for the goose is good for the gander: If you [in the US] can do it, we after such an attack can do it as well," says Mr. Lieven. "The military has obviously failed. [The Kremlin] is bankrupt, totally bankrupt of ideas." [...]
Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Institute of Comparative Politics in Moscow, is blunter: "It is pure propaganda ... that will not make any strategic or military sense. It reminds one of a man who is in fact impotent, but wants to pretend he is still a Casanova."
The piece wraps up with another of Anatol Lieven's quotes - a sober yet shocking assessment, which, nevertheless, takes some value off the numerous statements made by the anti-Putin, pro-human rights groups and individuals:
"The Russians have not yet done everything that they could in terms of savagery," says Lieven. "All this talk of Russian abuses - most of [it is] true. But if you remember American strategy in Vietnam, or the French in Algeria, they cleared extensive areas of the countryside, put people behind barbed wire ... Anyone in those areas was by definition an enemy and shot on the spot."
"The Russians haven't done that yet," adds Lieven. "Another few attacks like this [and] the Russians could adopt much more ferocious measures."