In her posthumously published book of journals, Anna Politkovskaya wrote of several encounters with Beslan victims’ rights group, including the following:
“We, the mothers of Beslan,” Marina Park says, “are guilty of having given life to children doomed to live in a country that decided it did not need them. We are guilty of having voted for a president who decided children are expendable. We are guilty of having kept silent for ten years about the war being waged in Chechnya, which has brought forth rebels like Kulaev.” Ella Kesaeva, another bereaved mother, breaks in: “The main culprit is Putin. He hides behind his presidency. He has chosen not to meet us and apologize. It is a tragedy that we live under such a president, who refuses to take responsibility for anything.”
Very soon Ella Kesaeva could find herself charged with a crime for making these controversial statements. One would think that putting the victims’ families of one of the most odious and deadly terrorist attacks since September 11th on trial for extremism would be an extremely bad PR move by the Russian government, especially right before a presidential election. Apparently not.
Judging by the rash of headlines covering the story of the prosecutor in Ingushetia bringing opening up a show trial on charges of extremism against the Voice of Beslan group (allegedly for having made a false accusation of complicity in the attack of Vladimir Putin in a three-year-old letter), it appears that the Kremlin is willing to pay this reputational cost in order to communicate an important message: dissent has been criminalized in Russia.Thanks to yet another innovative use of the broad and flexible extremism law (just ask Andrei Piontkovsky), Russia has been able to “stamp out criticism” yet again – or at least this is how most newspapers are characterizing the action.Even though Voice of Beslan has been happy to corroborate this interpretation of Moscow’s intentions (Emma Tagaeva wrote an open letter to the president asking him to call off the trial stating “We consider you guilty of the deaths of our children but does that represent a manifestation of extremism? Will it bring honour to the law enforcement organs to accuse the victims of a terrible tragedy of extremism?“), I am not entirely convinced that it is merely “criticism” that Moscow is looking to extinguish with this extremism witch hunt.With more than 1,000 taken hostage during the Beslan siege, the majority of them children, and cases of clearly tragic mishandling and misconduct by the government, it is understandable and rational that these activist groups wield a surplus of misplaced grief and rage, and at times they may make very provocative accusations (especially after being ignored by officials for so many years). However, much more than just simple criticism of the president, what the Kremlin truly cannot tolerate is that the Beslan families are painfully demanding something that the state is wholly unable to provide: justice and a functioning legal system.The inability to provide justice for Beslan survivors has been slowing boiling for a long time, leading up to this latest direct confrontation. Some may recall the scenes of courtroom mayhem, as the victims’ groups reacted to the verdict granting amnesty to three policemen accused of misconduct during the hostage standoff last May. Even by the third anniversary of the attacks, there were already official attempts to infiltrate and co-opt these groups with government agents, according to Kasaeva, whose group was forcefully shut down right at the end of the summer. The extremely poor relations between victims’ families and the state were in place from the very beginning of the hostage situation, when television coverage was banned, numerous lies and misinformation, and an alarming lack of coordination, competence, and leadership that many believe could have saved hundreds of lives.Russia is not able to provide justice for Beslan, because as we have seen in many other trials discussed on this blog, lacking independence from Kremlin the procuracy no longer knows how to carry out investigations – they only know how to take instructions.It’s often remarkable to observers how the president has largely mishandled, if not bungled, every major public tragedy during his two terms (Chechnya, Kursk, Beslan, and Nord Ost), yet remains so popular. It is partly thanks to his effective imposition of the narrative of a “strong” Russia vs. a “weak” Russia being the reason behind practically any suffering. In his address to the nation following Beslan, in which he did not mention the school’s name, the terrorists, the deaths, nor any other detail, he clearly stated “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.“What famously followed of course was one of the fastest passages of new legislation in recent memory – by December Putin had abolished gubernatorial elections and centralized power by appointing the region’s representatives himself under uncontested presidential authority. In this manner, the tragedy of Beslan had become the key instrument for Moscow to water down democratic institutions, and “slide toward” authoritarianism.To question the validity of the state’s official story on Beslan would be the same as questioning the new expanded central powers. Truth and justice for the victims’ families look like they will be delayed until a new presidential administration can demonstrate its confidence, and loosen its iron grip on independent civil society groups outside the Kremlin’s control.