What Putin Should Do

It was my seventh year of living in Moscow, the summer of 2002, and I was walking through a busy downtown street after having returned from a recent visit with some reporter friends in Jerusalem. In Israel I was careful to avoid cafes, and I remember feeling nervous when a bus pulled up too close to me. Suicide bombings there were at their peak, and a simple walk could turn into an exercise of paranoia.

Moscow, in contrast, felt as safe as it ever was. Sure, there were murders and crime, as in any large city. But even after the 9/11 attacks on the United States the idea of terrorism in Russia seemed a distant problem, one that was suffered more in the Middle East than Europe. The war in Chechnya was a distant horror, one that bothered Russians primarily because their sons were being sent there, not because there was widespread discontent with the idea of the war, or the way it was being carried out. Those mothers who had money were able to get their sons off the draft list, or make sure they were not sent to Chechnya at the very least. It mostly was the unlucky mothers in the provinces, too poor and too intimidated to buy their sons' freedom that lost their loved ones. In Moscow, the mood was giddy. Western-style malls were opening, a middle class was forming and Chechnya was a skeleton in the closet, one that had not yet lost its flesh but was at least out of sight. I remember walking peacefully down Tverskaya Avenue, with its brightly lit storefronts and giant L'Oreal advertisements adorning the sides of newly minted office buildings and thinking to myself: this can't last.

Having covered Chechnya as a reporter, I knew that the Chechens felt as oppressed and angry as any of the Palestinians I had interviewed during a brief assignment at the start of the second intifada. Suicide bombings may have been common in the Middle East, but nothing similar was happening on the Chechen front. Although Russian police on the streets of Moscow often stopped Chechen-looking men to check for documents (and usually to force a small bribe from them for fabricated bureaucratic infractions) there was little or no significant security on Moscow streets, and certainly no sense among Russians that they might ever be targeted. That was then.

Russians see Beslan as their September 11, and rightly so. Yes, the attack on a Russian theater in 2002 was a shock, but nothing strikes more at the heart of the country's sense of inviolability than a coordinated, ruthless attack on its children. Who could ever have imagined such a thing? Russia's days of horror this past two weeks, beginning with two nearly simultaneous planes crashes and ending (hopefully) with the atrocity of Beslan, brings the country to a new turning point. Long-simmering civil strife could break out in beyond Chechnya's borders in the south, Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely ratchet up the already ceaseless pressure and attacks on Chechnya's population, and more terror is the likely end result.

In 1999, when more than 300 people died in a series of bomb blasts that brought down three apartment buildings in Moscow and southern Russia, the Chechens were blamed and there was a popular outcry for revenge. Many of my Russian friends joined the thousands of Muscovites who took turns guarding the entrances to their own buildings, and a sense of formidable unity was palpable. Riding on a wave of popular support that would carry him to the presidency, Putin sent troops back into Chechnya to unleash another few years of displacement and underreported violence. Moscow was focused on money and the fast life, and Chechnya receded once again into the background. In recent years it has been rare to see meaningful coverage of the Chechnya conflict in the U.S. press. This is largely because of the difficulties of reporting from there: not only might the Russian government confiscate a reporter's accreditation if they are caught visiting Chechnya "unofficially," but kidnapping makes Chechnya a worrisome assignment regardless of accreditation concerns. Still, it is hard not to cringe at the fact that one rarely sees Chechens on a U.S. network news report unless they are wearing balaclavas and carrying AK-47s. There is more to Chechnya than this, and the Chechens have a right to be angry about the carnage committed against them by Russian troops. But bands of criminals who kill innocent children and unsuspecting parents will hardly help the already downtrodden Chechen people. And further violence in Chechnya will hardly help a Russian populace that is the first line of attack for Chechen terrorists.

Responding to the threats of terrorists is an unpracticed science, judging from the range of governmental reactions: the U.S. with pre-emptive attacks, the Philippines and Spain with concessions. It is not clear what response to take to Beslan. But at the very least the Putin administration should make it possible for reporters to cover Chechnya, to allow the world to witness the government's response to the past two weeks of bloodshed. While trying to fly to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis, one leading Russian journalist appears to have been poisoned, while another was arrested on trumped-up "hooliganism" charges. The modern world may not yet know how to respond to terrorism, but at the very least the reaction of its leaders can be chronicled to better understand the challenges we face.