'We Need To Start A Dialogue'

In the last eight days, five terror attacks have swept across Russia: a bombing at a bus stop, simultaneous explosions that brought down two commercial planes, last night's subway bombing that killed 10 people and today's siege of a school in the province of North Ossetia, on the border with Georgia in the south. Between 100 and 300 people are being held hostage, half of them children who arrived this morning with their parents for the first day of school. At least 15 armed attackers rushed the building around 9 a.m. Moscow time and have reportedly demanded that Russia withdraw all of its forces from the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya, where Russia has been fighting a bloody, decadelong war. NEWSWEEK's Anna Kuchment spoke with Vladimir Rhyzhkov, a liberal member of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament about the wave of attacks and how they will affect the Kremlin's policy in the Caucasus. Excerpts (translated from Russian):

NEWSWEEK: Horrifying as the events of the past week have been, Russia has suffered through equally terrifying terrorist attacks over the past few years, like the apartment house bombings of 1999, the Moscow Nord-Ost theater siege in which 900 spectators were taken hostage and last February's subway bombing that killed 39 people. Would you call these latest events an escalation in terror attacks, or is it just more of the same?

Vladimir Rhyzhkov: No, we can definitely talk about an escalation. In 2003, as compared to 2002, the number of terrorist acts in Russia have doubled and the number of victims also doubled. I think this year, judging by what's already happened, we will have another sharp increase in the number of attacks and casualties. Just this year, more than 150 people have died, so this says that every year brings an escalation of terrorism in Russia. We've never had as many terror attacks and as many victims as we have under [President Vladimir] Putin. It's unprecedented.

What's caused the sharp increase?

The main reason behind the escalation in terrorism is Putin's hard-line policy in Chechnya. He refuses to carry on any dialogue with [Chechen separatist leader Aslan] Maskhadov or the other commanders and fighters and is bent on their destruction. And, just as in Israel, a hard-line policy brings an escalation of terror attacks in response. The other reason is the inefficacy of Russian antiterrorism forces--the inefficacy of the Federal Security Service [FSB], the inefficacy of the Ministry of the Interior [MVD] and of the prosecutor general's office. Meanwhile, in the United States there has not been a single new terrorist act since September 11. That tells you our security service is completely ineffective in their fight against terror. Much less effective than those in the U.S.A. or in Israel. In Israel there are also lots of terror attacks, but many are averted. But I don't know of a single instance where our security service successfully deterred an act of terror. This past week gives us the most horrifying evidence of that.

So you believe the Russian government should enter into a dialogue with Chechen fighters?

I think it's necessary to at least attempt to start that dialogue, maybe at first excluding those people like [guerilla commander Shamil] Basayev, who have unquestionably committed terrorist acts and who are criminals in the eyes of the international community. But perhaps it would be worthwhile to open a dialogue with someone like Maskhadov, who has denied responsibility for attacks like the airplane bombings and in Nord-Ost. Perhaps it makes sense to form a split between those who have committed terrorist acts and those who have disavowed them. Perhaps that would lower the threat level to the Russian public.

Do you think this latest wave of attacks will bring about any change in Putin's policies?

I think that that depends on whether the terror attacks continue or not. We still don't know how this terrifying tragedy with the school will play out, because the school is comparable to the Nord-Ost hostage crisis. At Nord-Ost, 900 people were held, here it's less than 400--but these are kids. This is really a second Nord-Ost. If this series of terrorist attacks will continue for another week or two or three, then Putin's authority will crumble before the eyes of Russian society and society may demand personal responsibility from someone. And then there might be some sort of massive reform of the FSB. If this is the last attack, then merely technical changes will be made to airport security and school security, but there won't be any political changes.

But why hasn't there already been a strong reaction from the public or the Duma? We have a different system. Our parliament doesn't play any role in questions of security or external politics or defense. Security is left in the hands of the FSB, MVD and Putin. Under our constitution, parliament has no right to conduct investigations at all. We have no means of political control over the security services.