International Papers

Staging a Siege

European papers are understandably gripped by the Moscow theater hostage crisis, where 40-50 commandos are holding at least 500 civilians. The rebels have threatened to start executing captives Saturday morning, unless Russia withdraws its troops from Chechnya. Pravda described the “deplorable” conditions in the theater: “A water pipe in the basement has burst and the theatre is gradually filling with water, while in the main hall, the orchestra pit is being used as an open latrine, making the air stench [sic], creating a precarious hygienic situation.”

Headlines in the Russian press included, “Country Held Hostage,” “War Bursts on Moscow,” and “World War.” As the Moscow Times observed, the crisis is “perhaps the most crucial test” of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, especially since his political career owes much to his tough stance on the Chechen conflict. Moskovskiy Komsomolets said, “The Chechen fighters have taken hostage not just hundreds of theatergoers but also Putin’s political career.”

Several papers noted what Spain’s El País described as the “echoes of the massive attack in Bali and its smaller facsimile in the Philippines” in the Moscow mass-kidnapping. The paper bemoaned the “alarming pattern” in the “massive use of terror against innocent civilians to settle or air the most disparate conflicts and grievances, real or imagined.” Still, the editorial conceded that the commandos had already achieved their main objective, which was to bring the world’s attention to the situation in Chechnya. “The desperate action shows the frustration caused by an unresolved conflict, with hundreds of thousands of victims, which Putin has not ended either with arms or diplomacy. Every month dozens of Russian soldiers and Chechen rebels fall, [and] innocent civilians are subjected to all manner of atrocities by troops from a nominally democratic state.”

Le Monde of France declared, “Taking hostages is terrorism. The cause hardly matters; the method is ignoble.” Nevertheless, the editorial had no patience for Putin, who it accused of “pursuing a very political goal: benefiting from the passive complicity of Western governments with regards to the dirty war which he has waged in Chechnya.” It continued: “Islamic radicalism would not have prospered in Chechnya if … Putin had chosen to negotiate. He preferred war—and not just any war, a war of systematic prosecution of the civilian population; a war where torture is generalized. … The condemnation of terrorism loses its moral force if, as [here], it masks the denial of the reality of a national conflict, as in Chechnya.”

The Moscow Times berated Moscow’s law enforcement and security agencies for failing to prevent 50 armed rebels from seizing a public venue just 3 miles from the Kremlin, especially when Chechen separatists have a history of large-scale kidnappings. In recent weeks there have been signs of increased radicalization among the Chechens. In a video released in September, rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was seen “wearing the paraphernalia of a militant Islamist, including epaulets with verses from the Koran in Arabic script” rather than his usual combat fatigues. Nevertheless, the Independent pointed out that religion was a small part of the Chechen’s motivation: “It was the ferocity of the Russian occupation, not links between the rebels and al-Qa’ida or Islamic sympathisers abroad, that sustained the rebellion. Villagers would often say they detested the rebel commanders, often little more than bandits, but that the Russians had left them no choice but to fight.”

How will the siege end? Izvestiya said Putin faces a difficult decision: “Does he want to be another Gen. de Gaulle, who gave up Algeria to save France? Or another Stalin, who solved the nationalities question by means of deportation, of the Chechens among others?” The Financial Times also cited de Gaulle as a potential precedent for the Chechen situation: “Mr Putin is clearly not going to let Chechnya go, as General de Gaulle did with Algeria—certainly not under duress. But he may eventually have to consider political concessions, and his new western friends would do well to press him in that direction. Otherwise, Russia’s savage war of peace with the Chechens is set to continue.”

(Russian translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)