International Papers

Putin’s Knockout Gas

Under pressure from Western governments, Russia named the gas used in last week’s rescue of hostages held at a Moscow theater: It was fentanyl, an opiate used medically as an anesthetic. Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko said that fentanyl gas “cannot in itself be called lethal” and that the hostages who were killed by the gas were already weakened by hunger and dehydration. “I officially declare that chemical substances of the kind banned under international conventions on chemical weapons were not used,” Shevchenko said.

But even with the identification of the gas, many questions remain. The London Telegraph reports that many Russians suspect that the government is keeping the real death toll secret. The government has acknowledged that 117 hostages died, but at least 70 people still cannot be found—either on the death lists or in the hospitals—and their families continue to search for them: “[A]s the crowds thinned yesterday in the relentless rain a few lonely, watchful figures stood in doorways and hospital foyers still desperate for news of their loved ones.” The Telegraph also reports that doctors have been forced to sign forms promising not to talk to reporters, and that during the siege authorities insisted that mobile-phone companies turn off their decoders so the intelligence service could monitor cell-phone traffic.

The press response to the Russian events is mixed, with some papers worrying that the siege will lead Moscow to censor coverage of the Chechen war and others congratulating both the government and media for responsibly handling the crisis. Telegraph columnist Janet Daley lauds the Russian government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists, whose stated goals “must not be dignified with political consideration.” The threat of terrorism justifies curtailing civil liberties: “Terrorism must end in disaster for the perpetrators,” she argues. “Do the processes of justice sometimes have to be forgone in order to protect life and the freedom to live it? Yes—undoubtedly, yes.”

The Moscow Times praises the Russian media’s coverage of the crisis, emphasizing the difficult choices made on the spot and downplaying the level of government interference: “In back offices, [editors and TV producers]—often in close contact with the government—had tough decisions to make. Do you air a telephone interview with a hostage-taker, which is forbidden by Russian law, while a refusal to do so may further endanger the lives of the hostages?” The Times buries in the third-to-last paragraph this doublespeak by the deputy press minister, about the ministry’s decision to shut down a TV station and its threats to other stations: “It had to be done to prevent a more acute situation, when criticism of the media could have reached a critical point and tougher measures would have been taken.”

To Times columnist Alexei Pankin, the crisis demonstrated the media’s new maturity: “By the time of the ‘Nord-Ost’ events there were no significant media outlets left living by the principle: ‘The worse it is for the president, the better for us.’ In other words, neither the authorities nor the media owners prevented journalists from doing their job.”

But the French Le Figaropredicts an assault on liberties. Under the grisly headline “Putin Wants to Asphyxiate the Chechen Rebellion,” Figaro cites Russian fears that discussion of the war will be censored. “Tomorrow, will we still have the right to organize a meeting against the war in Chechnya?” Figaro quotes one Russian daily as asking.

Figaro, the Moscow Times, and the Telegraph all report that Chechens in Moscow are experiencing a backlash, suffering harassment by police officers and being forced to pay bribes to be left alone. And last night, Denmark arrested Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev, whom Moscow suspects of participating in planning the Moscow siege. Zakayev was attending the World Chechen Congress in Copenhagen. Moscow is demanding his extradition, but Denmark may be reluctant to turn him over, especially since Russia has not formally abolished the death penalty.