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From: Vladmir Shlapentokh (shlapent@msu.edu)
Subject: The Terrorist Basayev as a Major Political Actor in Russia
Date: Mon, 18 Oct 2004

The Terrorist Basayev as a Major Political Actor in Russia
By Vladimir Shlapentokh (Michigan State University)

Today, President Vladimir Putin is almost completely free from the pressures of all political institutions and rival politicians in Russia. He has the power to take nearly any position on the countryís most vital foreign and domestic issues. Perhaps the only opponent who concerns Putin is Shamil Basayev, a leader of a Chechen terrorist group.

Whatever the motivations of the Kremlin, there are no institutions or individual politicians able to counter Putinís authority. In fact, Putinís power is more unlimited than any Russian ruler in the last two centuries. While the Russian tsars were accountable only to God, they were still surrounded by an imperial court with great princes and other relatives who held high status≠among them the tsarís wife, who could not be fired and who often exerted, as historical data show, considerable pressure on his majesty. The general secretary of the Communist Party was certainly a totalitarian leader, but he could not ignore the Politburo≠one of the main political institutions in the Soviet Union. In the second half of Brezhnevís tenure, the role of the Politburo, which had been quite high in the beginning, declined. However, Brezhnev made crucial decisions, such as the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, with the help of three members of the Politburo. Brezhnev was also sensitive to international public opinion, particularly in the United States. Under its pressure he not only permitted emigration from the Soviet Union, a revolutionary event at that time, but also signed in 1975 at Carterís prompting the famous Helsinki agreement that forced Moscow to recognize human rights as an international issue.

The flamboyant Yeltsin (his groveling entourage named him "tsar Boris") seemed like the epitome of impulsive and unpredictable behavior. At the same time, Yeltsin was surrounded by a number of independent minds, such as Egor Gaidar and Victor Chernomyrdin, who often influenced his views and who are remembered today with nostalgic respect. Even the presidentís daughter Tatiana Diachenko played a role as an independent voice in her fatherís court. It was she along with Anatolii Chubais who convinced Yeltsin not to cancel the presidential election in 1996. Besides, with all his hatred of the State Duma and the Federation Council, Yeltsin was forced to take into account its opinion as well as the position of the Russian media, which were totally free to denounce Yeltsinís policy and even his personality.

Moving to Putinís reign, it is hardly possible to imagine a major head of state with such meager experience as the current leader of Russia. In comparison with the seasoned Soviet and post-Soviet leaders, along with the young heirs to the Russian throne of the nineteenth century, Putin looks like a political rookie, even after four years in the Kremlin. Before being appointed by Yeltsin as his successor he had worked as a national politician for only one year in his capacity as chairman of the Federal Service of Security (FSB), and served only five years as the deputy mayor of Petersburg.

No other contemporary head of state is in greater need of a mechanism that can aid in decision making than Putin. Besides his lack of experience, Putin has systematically destroyed the political institutions that could check his leadership and prevent him from making poor decisions. As a result, he is now facing the dramatic developments in the country alone. As a leading Moscow political analyst Dmitry Furman recently mentioned, "Putin does not fear anyone in the country, and nobody can pester him with objections."

Both chambers of the Russian parliament≠the State Duma and the Federation Council≠have been transformed into institutions that obediently rubberstamp the most absurd proposals coming from above. There is nothing in the country like the Politburo that can prevent the president from making dangerous decisions. Until recently, several governors and presidents of non-Russian republics, such as Nikolai Fedorov from Chuvashia, could express their views even if they contrasted with those of Putin. After Beslan, however, the president cancelled the election of local leaders and will now appoint them, eliminating the last relatively independent institution in the country. These people can no longer assert themselves as "elected leaders." The once brazen feudal barons, such as Yurii Luzhkov, Moscowís mayor and one-time Putin rival, have bowed before Putin and hailed his decision to take complete control of the political machine. The media, particularly TV, behaves almost as it did in Soviet times and lost its power to impact policy. Putin provided new evidence of the real status of the Russian media during the Beslan tragedy when he sacked Raf Shakirov, the editor of the serious newspaper Izvestia, because he published a front-page article on September 4 with the tragic image of a woman bearing a bleeding child.

Having eliminated all likely and even unlikely rivals from the political scene, Putin is not worried about public opinion condemning his actions. He had already demonstrated this indifference toward the peopleís views when he monetized social benefits in August 2004, a decision that was rejected by 50-65 percent of the Russians.

By the end of his first term in office, Putin had surrounded himself with people whose intellectual and professional level has been popularly perceived as exceedingly low. No one in Russia can imagine that someone like Boris Fradkov, Putinís prime minister, can say anything to his boss besides "yes." As the prominent Russian journalists Yulia Kalinina noted in her article about the people surrounding Putin, which she entitled "Impotent men," Fradkov was simply invisible during the Beslan crisis. The Russians have little respect for both Sergei Ivanov, Putinís defense minister, and Boris Gryzlov, the Duma speaker. In the aftermath of Beslan, many people demanded the resignation or firing of the general attorney as well as the leaders of the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

There are no independent public figures who can claim that the Kremlin will even listen to his or her considerations. Even in Brezhnevís times there were figures of science and literature whose opinion drew the attention of the party apparatus. Putin even ignores the two former Russian Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, both of whom have condemned Putinís new steps in the curtailment of democracy in the country. As the prominent Russian journalist Vladimir Nadein noted after Putin announced his political innovations to a large audience containing all members of the government and all the governors on September 13, 2004, no one stood up and offered even a modestly critical remark. The political process in Russia has gotten to such a point where the Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, in his interview with Komsomolskaia Pravda on September 29, used the term "the fifth column" in his reference to the opposition≠a terminology used in Stalinís time, but not during the Brezhnev period. Surkovís interview nearly aroused a panic among those Moscow intellectuals who have not been willing to completely surrender to the Kremlin, as was shown by the hot debates about Surkovís interview on the last island of liberalism≠radio station Echo Moskvy.

Putin, unlike the Soviet leaders, is also deaf to the modest comments of the Western leaders about the developments in Russia. Collin Powellís critique was rejected dismissively by the Kremlin in the person of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. A less offensive critique by President Bush was ignored by the Russian officials, while Putinís media expressed its total disdain for these critiques as well as the negative editorials in the American media. Putin has quickly learned the art of demagoguery in his public confrontations with foreigners, which he demonstrated in his meeting with foreign journalists after the Beslan crisis. His skills in this area may even surpass those of the Soviet leaders, including Gorbachev, one of the more sophisticated general secretaries. Putin and his retinue exude with conceit when facing their Western critics. They equate the destruction of democracy in Russia with the problems facing the vibrant democracies of the West, and accuse their Western partners of having "double standards in dealing with terrorism." As a new trick in Moscow demagoguery, Vladislav Surkov, discarding the critique of Moscowís policy toward Chechnia, suggested that the United States would be better able to understand the Russian problems if it had on its territory "the Afro-American republic," or the "Hispanic-Jewish republic."

As Putin canceled the elections of governors and changed the election procedure for the State Duma, which would place it under even more of the Kremlinís authority, he ignored the public response in Russia and abroad, and continued talking about the steady course of democracy (for instance, he spoke about Russiaís democratic progress during his last meeting with the participants of the international congress of information agencies in Moscow on September 25).

Putinís bold disregard for the real political processes in the country is reminiscent of his compatriot Stalin who praised his new constitution at the 8th Congress of the Soviets in November-December 1936 as "the most democratic in the world." Stalin also came to the mind of some Russian politicians who reminded the public that the General Secretary had used the enigmatic murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad leader, in 1934 for launching the biggest political turmoil in the country after the civil war. They claim that Putin has used the Beslan tragedy in the same way.

There is, however, one person in the world who influences Putinís domestic policy. This person is none other than Shamil Basayev, a known terrorist, fabled in the Russian media as almost invincible, an immortal bandit with numerous ties to the high echelons of the Russian political establishment. Some even believe that he is an instrument of Putinís opponents in the Russian special services. The terrorist attacks carried out by Basayev between August 25 and September 1, which resulted in 432 deaths including 118 children, terrified the nation and delivered a heavy blow to Putinís image and authority. The event even cast doubt about the survival of Russia as we know it today, a concern that was expressed by the president himself at a meeting with foreign journalists in September. Even more remarkable is the fact that Basayev was the first figure in Russia who, through his operators in Beslan, called for Putinís resignation as a condition for peace in the country. He evidently is well versed in the political process in Russia and has read Levadaís data, which reports that between one third and one half of the Russians supported in August 2004 the idea of the president negotiating with him, an idea that Putin has absolutely rejected under any circumstances. While Basayev cannot directly effect whether Putin stays in office, he does have the power to do what the Russian people cannot: force Putin to start a real struggle against corruption. For many years there has been a general consensus among the Russians that corruption is a major problem in the country, particularly in the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, including the FSB. Putin came to power in 1999 with promises to restore the authority of the state and wage a war against corruption. The people were disgusted with the orgy of corruption under Yeltsin, particularly during the wild period of privatization. In 2000, the Russians ranked corruption as one of the five most important problems facing the country, and accepted Putinís declaration to stop it. However, during Putinís five years in the Kremlin, corruption, as two thirds of the Russians believed in August 2004 (according to data of various public opinion firms), remained the same or increased in comparison to the past. No corrupt high official or oligarch has been put on trial. The prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky was not an act against corruption, but a demonstration of Putinís determination to remove from political life any serious rival.

Meanwhile, the Russian public has not acquiesced to the problem of corruption. During all five years of Putinís presidency, the public, media and political parties have implored the president to begin a serious struggle against corruption. In January 2004, answering the question, "What are the major tasks of the president today?," 42 percent of the Russians said "fight corruption"; in second place, 41 percent said "reduce poverty." It is remarkable that in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy the people named "the corruption of law enforcement agencies" as the main cause of the terroristsí attacks, ranking international terrorism and the special services of foreign countries in second place.

There is no consensus among the most knowledgeable experts in Moscow about why Putin is so reluctant to do what is evidently in the best interest of the country. Since 2000, Russian authors have tried to convince Putin to have his own "20th party congress" and break with corruption in the same radical way as Khrushchev did with Stalinism in 1956, promising Putin the adoration of society. Moscow analysts have advanced a number of theories explaining Putinís evident reluctance to battle corruption≠from his personal enmeshment in the corruption schemes in the 1990s, especially when he worked in Petersburg in the mid 1990s as deputy mayor, to his promise to Yeltsin, his benefactor, that he would not bother his fully corrupt "family" and its wide connections in business and bureaucracy.

However, after Basayevís strikes, Putin, in his address to the nation on September 4, the day following the tragedy, as if caught up in "a moment of truth" for the first time since 2000, declared that the corruption that had "hit law enforcement agencies" was the major cause of the failure to thwart the attacks. It is evident for everybody in Russia that an effective fight against terrorism is impossible with rampant corruption in the country. In the case of one of the downed airliners, the female terrorist involved had purchased her ticket for 70 dollars through an unauthorized seller inside the airport in order to avoid being identified. Defying and mocking Putin, Basayev, as the popular newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported, declared that his terrorist acts were "financed by the Russian budget." Many Russians, who are convinced that the country is deeply corrupt, took this statement quite seriously. Indeed, almost two thirds of the Russians support Basayevís thesis about the "money sent by Moscow to Chechnia."

While Basayevís "positive" impact on the struggle against corruption is far from clear, his "negative" impact on the Russian political process is obvious. Basayev gave Putin a pretext, even if an awkward one, to cancel the elections of governors, and change the election procedure of the State Duma, permitting voters to select only the party list and not the individual candidates≠actions that are regarded in Russia as the next step toward the change to guarantee the continuation of Putinís power after 2008.

Russia, the West and the whole world has to deal with a major nuclear power whose leader is running the country, now a half century later, in the style of Stalin. It is well known that Putin admires Stalin. Like Putin, there was no one around Stalin who could argue with him, including his wife Nadezhda and daughter Svetlana. Even in the darkest days of the Red Armyís defeat in the war with Nazi Germany in 1941-1942, none of the Soviet commanders dared to criticize Stalinís strategic and tactical decisions.

Of course, Putinís Russia is still very different from Stalinís Soviet Union. Russia, having lost essentially its democratic institutions, is still an open country and there are no mass political repressions, and people still enjoy economic freedom. However, the mechanism of decision-making is located in both cases in one place: the supreme leader. Russia faces many serious problems. The fact that the country is run by a leader who is not exposed to any form of external control and reacts only to the deeds of terrorists is one of them. As we know, the decision-making process in liberal societies, though based on the cooperation of various institutions, does not guarantee the best possible solutions. However, what quality of leadership can the Russians expect if all the decisions are made by an inexperienced leader who is completely absorbed with maintaining his power and surrounded by a group of groveling and unsophisticated advisors?

The decision-making process in Russia, which lacks independent political institutions and free media, is aggravated further by the distortion of information about real life in the country. Putinís advisers tend to provide him with information that sustains his good mood and self-assurance. The leader himself, intoxicated by absolute power, has not only destroyed the free media, which offers its own picture of reality (information that would be helpful to a sober leader), but has also ordered his administration to cover up the unpleasant facts from the public. As a recent example, the Kremlin covered up information in the aftermath of the simultaneous terrorist strikes that took down two Russian planes in August 2004. For two days, the Kremlin, through the Minister of Transportation Igor Levitin, tried to persuade the world that it had not been a terrorist attack. His clumsy attempts to challenge common sense made him a laughing stock in the country.

But even more important than the hiding or distortion of the facts from the public is that the leader tends to avoid any information that undermines his self-confidence. Stalin and Khrushchev in the last years of their rule provided historians with colorful illustrations of this thesis. But there are many evidences that Putin has closed the distance between sober and self-serving perceptions of reality not in twenty years, as was the case for Stalin, or in the ten years for Khrushchev, but in only three to four years.

The diagnosis of Putin as a leader who not only tries to cover up unpleasant facts but who has lost contact with reality has become a popular theme among those Russian journalists who can still afford to be critical of the president. Their views have been supported by the frequent cases of Putin showing amazement after being forced by circumstances to encounter reality. In May 2004, for instance, Putin exclaimed, after viewing the Chechen capital Groznyi from the air, that he had never imagined such destruction left by the war. He also showed some amazement when he visited the sailorsí hostels in the Far East, declaring that he had never guessed that the conditions could be so terrible.

Trying to remain loyal to the master of the country the editors of a popular weekly Argumenty I Fakty recently wrote, "Whether Putin wanted it or not, by the fifth year of his governance, a paradoxical system of management and decision making for this gigantic country has been shaped so that all officials are subordinate practically only to one man."

Basayev not only helped Putin harden the regime in the country, but also encouraged anti-Americanism, as paradoxical as this may seem. One might expect an increased level of sympathy and solidarity with America as an ally in the war against terrorism. Putin has indeed demonstrated several times after September 11 his readiness to cooperate with the United States in various spheres, military and economic. The joint navy maneuvers of the American and Russian fleets in summer 2004, along with the visit of American officers to Russian nuclear facilities are only a couple examples of the Russian-American collaboration. On the other hand, however, Putin has also revealed his strong hostility toward the United States. One of the examples was the absurd outburst of hatred toward America in Russia in February 2002 in connection with the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, when at the command of the Kremlin almost all Russian dignitaries expressed their ire against Washington, which had allegedly robbed victory from many Russian athletes by manipulating the judges.

In his dramatic address to the nation on September 4, Putin found it necessary to talk about the horrendous event in Beslan by pointing his finger not only at the terrorists themselves, but also to some anonymous forces that "help" terrorism, because "they still believe that Russia≠one of the biggest nuclear powers≠still presents a danger to them." Few in Russia had problems decoding this text, which was clearly addressed to the United States. Surkov, the deputy head of Putinís administration, elaborated the issue talking about Western politicians (evidently Americans), whose "goal is the destruction of Russia and the filling of its space with numerous unviable quasi-state formations."

In this case, anti-Americanism may reflect not so much a real hostility toward the United States, but the necessity of using it in order to find excuses for the series of extremely humiliating Russian defeats brought by Basayev, the head of a relatively small band of terrorists. It is convenient for Putin, as mentioned by some Russian authors, to see Basayev as "an instrument" of "some forces" that dream of destroying Russia, to use the terms employed by Putin in his speech.

Putinís speech on September 4 could only boost an extremely ugly wave of hatred of the United States. Anti-Americanism rages not only in the Communist newspapers, among the likes of General Leonid Ivashov, former head of the international department in the Russian General Staff, or Mikhail Leontiev, a leading journalist for the pro-government TV station Channel One (both individuals unequivocally ascribed the events at Beslan to Washington). Though stated in a less provocative way, Washington was also considered guilty for the Beslan tragedy in several articles published in the most respectable periodicals. The gush of anti-Americanism in the aftermath of Beslan, with the replacement of real enemies with fictitious ones, dumbfounded even the most experienced and sober observers of Russian political life, who until now believed in some sort of rationality of the elites. These observers still cannot digest how it is possible for Putin, who tightly controls the media, to allow such a "passionate hatred of Russiaís Ďstrategic partners in the fight against international terrorism.í"

The war against international terror and the proliferation of nuclear weapons (the greatest threats to civilization after WWII), in which the role of Russia is enormous, pushes the Western leaders, unlike the Western media, to abandon their attempts to influence the Russian domestic affairs and nurture good relations with Putin. President Bush evidently accepted this position, and despite the pressure of leading American newspapers, has remained reserved in his critique of Putinís political deeds. He demonstrated this in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, where he completely supported Putinís stance toward Chechnia and refused to be even remotely critical of Moscowís policy in the Caucasus region. Bush was even more supportive of Putin in his debates with John Kerry on September 30, 2004 when he as well as his opponent reacted to a question about the recent anti-democratic developments in Russia. Promising to "remind Putin of the great benefits of democracy," the American president focused on the necessity of having "good relations with Vladimir" as "a strong ally in the war on terror."

We can only be in sympathy with Russian liberals who, feeling helpless at home and easily scared by the Kremlin≠only 28 out of the 134 members of the Russian Academy of TV signed a modest protest letter against the censure in the media≠place their hopes on Western intervention in the Russian political process, or the idea of Putin becoming concerned with a "cold Bush" ≠ to use the words of the liberal newspaper Kommersant-Daily. However, not many Russians share this illusory view. As the Russian politician Evgenii Satanovsky said, "unless terrorism is defeated, there will be nobody who cares about democracy, and therefore the West will not break with Putin as it refused to break with Stalin during WWII when the USSR became a shield against Hitlerís army."

During his tenure as president, Putin has been engaged in two serious political duels, one with Boris Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil magnate, and another with the terrorist Basayev. In the first duel, Putin was confident. He easily won and sent his opponent to jail. His political power proved to be much stronger than Khodorkovskyís big money. In the second duel, Putin seems less self-assured. With a corrupt and criminalized country, inept law enforcement agencies and a demoralized army, Putin faces his terrorist opponent with some trepidation.

Basayev is Russiaís Osama bin Laden. He is supported by the international radical Islamist community as well as by the anger of young Chechens who want revenge. He can send dozens and dozens of kamikazes to attack the many sensitive targets in Russia, sowing panic and terror in the country. In this way, he wants to undermine the legitimacy of the Russian president, whom he vowed to remove from the Kremlin. The success of terrorists in Spain who were able to influence in a radical way the political process is an encouraging sign for Basayev as well as for international terrorism on the whole. Surkov, Putinís confidant, probably exaggerated when he said that the country is now "under siege," but it may be true that Putin is facing a serious challenge to his power, though not from a political opponent, but a terrorist one. The outcome of the Putin-Basayev duel is of great importance to Russia and the world.

During the war against Hitlerís Germany, Churchill and Roosevelt halted their criticism of "Uncle Joe," as Stalin was tenderly referred to in the United States during the war. In his turn, Stalin ceased the anti-Western propaganda and even dismantled the Third International to please his partners. The war against international terror and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in which the role of Russia is enormous, has pushed Washington, unlike the American media, to abandon its attempts to influence the Russian domestic affairs and nurture good relations with Putin (as the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition did with Stalin) despite Russiaís paranoiac anti-American campaign.

Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.