Russian President Vladimir Putin Faces Security Challenge
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GWEN IFILL: When the latest video of the Beslan School siege hit the Russian airwaves last night…showing the crowded gymnasium rigged with explosives…it stoked an already growing public anger.
Yesterday in Moscow, tens of thousands of people rallied at the Kremlin against terrorism, the protesters claiming solidarity with victims of the Beslan massacre.
They also expressed anger over how the Kremlin has handled its years-long war with the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
PROTESTER (translated): If it weren’t for the political situation in our country there would be no terrorism.
GWEN IFILL: Over the weekend, Russian government officials admitted they lied during the standoff about the scale of the crisis — including the number of hostages.
The bloody school siege was only the latest in a series of attacks linked to the ongoing violence between Russia and separatists in the troubled Caucasus region.
In October 2002, Chechen rebels took 900 hostages in a Moscow theater.
Before storming the building, Russian authorities pumped in a nerve gas that caused almost all of the 129 hostage deaths; 41 of the hostage-takers also died.
In February of this year, 39 people were killed when a suicide bomb blast tore through a crowded Moscow subway station.
Chechen militants have also been implicated in the twin mid-air explosions that downed two Russian jetliners in late August. Ninety people were killed.
And only a week later — and just one day before the Beslan siege — 10 more people were killed in an apparent suicide bombing outside a busy Moscow subway station.
But the Beslan School attack was the deadliest of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presidency, yet he has said little publicly since his first address to the Russian people last weekend.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (translated): What happened was a crime inhumane and unprecedented in its cruelty.
And it is not a challenge to the president, to the parliament or government. It is a challenge to the whole of Russia, to all of our people. It is an attack on our country by terrorists.
GWEN IFILL: On Monday, he expanded on that theme in an extended conversation with western journalists and academics meeting at his country residence.
In his remarks, Putin rejected calls from western governments for negotiations with Chechen rebels.
“Why don’t you just meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or the White House and engage in talks,” he said. “Ask him what he wants and give it to him so that he leaves you in peace?”
GWEN IFILL: U.S. officials have said Moscow should pursue a political settlement in Chechnya.
GWEN IFILL: Vladimir Putin spoke and took questions for more than three hours Monday night.
Among those in the room was Toby Gati, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration; she now advises Russian and American business clients for a Washington law firm.
Welcome, Ms. Gati. Tell us, how did this meeting, this kind of extraordinary meeting with Vladimir Putin come to be.
TOBY GATI: Well, a group of us were in Moscow, in Russia, for a discussion with some Russians on Russia’s future. It was planned quite a bit in advance.
When we saw that a meeting with Putin was on the schedule, we hoped it would happen. And then when the events in Beslan came about, the hostage-taking, we didn’t think it would.
But the president came in and he said, “This isn’t the best time for me, but I owe it to you to answer your questions.” And he opened it up for three-and-a- half hours of every question you could think of.
GWEN IFILL: What was the overall thrust of his remarks to you?
TOBY GATI: His overall thrust was that Russia was under attack. The first question was about Chechnya, and then it went to different subjects. The last question was on Chechnya, and I think that was kind of appropriate because that’s what our minds were focused on, but his tone was Russia is going to meet this challenge.
And he personally is going to take charge. And I got the sense that after a couple of days where events had moved out of control, where people got the sense of a state in chaos, this was his effort to say to foreigners and through our meeting to Russians that he knew mistakes had been made.
He went back as far as the first Chechen war and said maybe he wouldn’t have done it that way. He talked about the Soviet Union, as a lot of people do, with nostalgia, but also realizing that they had been the ones talking about world revolution in their time during the Soviet period and went on to say, “you in the West should understand there’s a domino theory here in the Caucasus, and if Chechnya goes and the Caucasus go, your security is at threat not just Russia; Russia is on the front line.”
GWEN IFILL: How unusual was it for him to admit that there were mistakes in the prosecution of the Chechen conflict?
TOBY GATI: Well, he admitted quite a few mistakes. One of our participants said something about having been in St. Petersburg and how great it was.
He said, yeah, you talked to people who think it’s great, it’s not so great if you talk to some other people. I think it was unusual, but it would be hard at that moment not to admit that mistakes had been made. He didn’t say that he had made any mistakes.
He acknowledged that the state he inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed things were not being done well.
And you could get a sense of frustration and perhaps anger at the people he had appointed who really had not handled this situation well.
GWEN IFILL: But not mistakes, to be clear, about the handling of the situation at the school in particular, and the way that Russian forces acted or didn’t act?
TOBY GATI: No, he went out of his way to praise Russian forces and say they put their lives on the line to save the children.
And you can see in the photographs that was actually true at times. He’s very convinced that his policy on Chechnya is the right one, a Chechenization handing over security eventually that you can’t negotiate with these people.
I think it’s interesting, if he could listen to this broadcast he would be profoundly upset to hear people talking about rebels and hostage-takers.
GWEN IFILL: What’s wrong with that?
TOBY GATI: The word they use is “terrorist.” They don’t regard these as people who have any cause other than — it’s not Chechen independence. He said, “We tried to do that. I did everything I could.”
And the years between the first and second Chechen war were chaotic. And he would not acknowledge that he should continue with negotiations with terrorists.
GWEN IFILL: Is this use of the term “terrorists” to describe the conflict there, did this predate the U.S.-led war on terror, or is it something that he has now made common cause with President Bush on?
TOBY GATI: Well, he has made common cause with Bush at 9/11. But even before 9/11 they were talking about the Chechen problem as one that wasn’t just involving the separatists and the nationalists, but people who were interested in destroying the north Caucasus.
And I must say that is their view. A lot of people believe that it’s the Russian policies that of course have caused the destabilization.
But I think his words for President Bush were extremely complimentary. I actually asked the question about the degree of support in his country for Bush versus Kerry. And he said, “Yes, it may be true that fewer Russians would support Bush, but among those Russians were a few quite influential ones.”
And you got the feeling that he felt there was a meeting of minds with Bush.
GWEN IFILL: But, excuse me, but it sounded from the reports from the meeting that he also was reasonably critical about the West and about their ideas, their suggestions, for instance, that there should be any negotiation at all with Chechens, with Chechen leaders.
TOBY GATI: He was extremely critical. But he blamed it on mid-level people in the administration.
And he didn’t mention countries, but for all of us, all of us who are experts on Russia understood that it was aimed at the United States and at Britain, both of whom have given asylum to prominent Chechen past leaders.
GWEN IFILL: What was his tone overall? Did he seem sorrowful? Did he seem tired? I mean, was he willing to take any question? Did he seem combative?
TOBY GATI: Took any question. He was not combative. We, after awhile, thought, “my God, he’s president. What time does he get up in the morning?” We’re awfully tired. It was midnight before we were done.
No, I got the sense that he really felt he had to explain what was happening, that this was Russia’s crucial hour, and the people in the West should understand the challenge that Russia faced.
GWEN IFILL: So what does he say is at the root of the conflict which is, we think, spurring all these various series of attacks?
TOBY GATI: Well, the first thing he’ll say is that he inherited a state, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was in chaos, and that the structures were not adequate for the new state, the Russian federation. That would be the first thing you would hear Putin say.
The second thing is that the Chechen, if it was ever a separatist movement, has been hijacked by international terrorism. And what he wants to do is put Russia back in the front of the war on terrorism, and make it clear that other countries’ support for that is important.
And he doesn’t like double standards, and he doesn’t like what he called “Cold War mentality” meaning the weaker Russia is the better.
GWEN IFILL: Did he also allude to the notion that the U.S.-led war on terror or the war in Iraq may have brought terrorism to his doorstep?
TOBY GATI: Well, one of the other people we met with said that people from 40 countries had been killed in Chechnya but never anybody who had come from Iraq.
And they did… he did not speak so much about what had happened. In a way what he was saying, as the message, was, “Yes, we disagreed with President Bush and the West, but now our task is to normalize the situation in Iraq and do what we can,” which would not include military help, but educational or medical or humanitarian assistance, that kind of thing. Iraq was not his problem at the moment.
That was a war very far away. You could tell it was not number one on his agenda.
GWEN IFILL: But when he was trying to describe the situation that he believes Russia to be in right now he also made parallels to the U.S. Electoral College.
TOBY GATI: Yes, he did. You know, he said every country has to have institutions that correspond to its level of development. He said, “Well, you know, some people say you don’t have press freedom, you know, how could it be press freedom if Murdoch owns so many newspapers?” Or whatever.
He said, “Well, you have system where you have your electoral system.” Now, is that really democracy? So what he has is, you know, sometimes you wonder the expression a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. He knows enough about the United States to be able to talk about it.
But his perception of the way our country functions and what we do… for example, he said the 9/11 report was, well, you know, of course before an election you had this. It’s really not that serious a document — that kind of thing.
But I really think he believes that the war on terrorism is something he can find common cause with the United States at least, perhaps less with the Europeans.
GWEN IFILL: Is there even a debate in Russia like there is here about the cost of freedom versus security in these kinds of situations?
TOBY GATI: Absolutely. But Russians at this moment will choose security any time. For them, the word freedom and democracy is often a synonym unfortunately for chaos, the chaos of the 1990s and their personal security – there are a lot of people who are afraid to send their children to school, to get on the subways, and you really do have the feeling they’re people united by fear.
And I think Putin’s aim is to change that and say we should be united by a desire to fight against fear and not be united by being a fearful country. That’s not our history.
GWEN IFILL: Sounds like a fascinating evening, Toby Gati.
TOBY GATI: It was.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much for telling us all about it.
TOBY GATI: Thank you.