President Vladimir Putin hardly blinked when he authorized his special forces to gas hundreds of Russian citizens so that they could be liberated from a group of 50 or so explosive-laden, hostage-taking Chechens.

Until the fateful moment at the weekend when the Chechen war was literally played out at a theater right in the heart of Moscow – and for all the world to see – Putin was Russia’s darling. The former KGB operative in East Germany, who arguably restored Russia’s dignity, enjoyed real pop star status. Now Moscow sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky is bold enough to say that “the sun is starting to set on Putin’s rule.”

What kind of suffering must a woman have been through to attach loads of explosives to her body and decide to kill other women and children? Russian writer Viktor Chenderovich was one of the few who dared to pose the question – on the radio station Echoes of Moscow. Chenderovich said that Russians used to pretend that they were in Europe, and the war was very far away. “But the war is not in the Caucasus, it’s in Russia. Russian society was asleep, as if it has inhaled some kind of gas.”

And tragically, the gas is not metaphorical any more. It was revealed by the authorities to be a “special substance.” According to Russian scientists, it may be BZ, a nerve gas based on a hallucinogenic drug, used by the US during the Vietnam War. At the latest count, the gas killed all but two of the 117 dead hostages, and sent 650 to Moscow hospitals, 200 of them in critical condition. In any Western European democracy, a government responsible for gassing its own citizens – even under these circumstances – would have to resign on the spot. But this is Russia – where democratic decisions and respect for human rights are not exactly high on the agenda.

The Russian military still refuse to disclose the exact nature of the gas. All of the Chechen women who had strapped explosives to their bodies died inhaling the mysterious gas. Extremely fragile Chechen political authorities insist that the women were not Chechens: they might have come from the Gulf. Putin insists that the whole episode was a plot hatched with the participation of “Afghans and Arabs.” In Putin’s world view, Moscow is a sequence to Bali in Indonesia.

There’s no denying that Saudi and Jordanian radical Islamists directly or indirectly linked to al-Qaeda have been involved in the Chechen independence struggle against Russia. Chechens have trained – and fought – in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But Moscow is definitely not a sequence to Bali. This amounts to no less than intellectual terrorism by the Kremlin – a stunning manipulation of world public opinion. Under the Kremlin’s diktat, if radical Islamists are guilty of the Moscow theater operation, this implies a total negation of the Chechen war – which keeps going under the passive complicity of the West.

Putin was one of the great benefactors of September 11. He was elected in 2000 on account of his hand of steel in Chechnya – and subsequently in 2001 he managed to sell his dirty war as an alliance of orthodox Russia and the West against radical Islam. Putin always conveniently obscured the fact that Chechnya has been a national conflict since at least the mid-19th century – an unresolved offshoot of Russian imperialism.

Chechens were not exactly waiting for a hand of providence in the form of al-Qaeda to fight Russian occupation in the Caucasus. In Chechnya, Putin chose war instead of any hint of negotiation. Kagarlitsky, the sociologist, emphasizes, “There was never any attempt to conduct a counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya. It hasn’t even been a war, but rather a brutal and senseless pogrom.”

The Kremlin line since Putin took over was that the Chechnya war could not be won – but it could be forgotten. But now the war – in another fabulous metaphor – has just been represented inside a Moscow theater, demonstrating among other things the absolute failure of the FSB (the post-KGB Russian secret services), and the military. Kagarlitsky reminds that “it is the federal army that over three years has abducted and killed Chechens; systematically pillaged and destroyed peaceful villages; and has been terrorizing innocent people.”

In a July, 2002 report by the French NGO M’decins du Monde (Doctors of the World), which caused a furor at the United Nations and elicited an angry official Russian response, Putin’s “anti-terrorist operation” is thoroughly deconstructed. According to the report, “The sinister zatchiska – clean-up operations – arbitrary arrests, summary executions and torture happen daily. The barbarity displayed by the federal army is unqualifiable. Violations of human rights are an integral part of this conflict and happen behind closed doors, in total impunity, under the general indifference of the international community.” In Chechnya, the civilian population is in fact held hostage by Russian paramilitary forces – with not even a peep coming either from the US or the European Union. Adds Kagarlitsky, “If you are looking for terrorists, you could do worse than to start the search in the Kremlin.”

The leader of the Moscow theater operation was Movsar Baraev, 25, who was cool, calm and collected as he appeared in front of Russian NTV cameras inside the theater. The young, radical Chechen resistance consider him to be an honored mujahid. His message to the Kremlin at the beginning of the hostage-taking operation is worth quoting at length:

“We came to the capital of Russia either in order to stop the war or to gain martyrdom in the path of Allah. Our demands are to stop the war and the retreat of the Russian forces. We are from the military observation and destruction unit that belongs to the Martyrs of the Gardens of the Righteous. And every one of us is ready to sacrifice ourselves in the cause of Allah and for the independence of Chechnya and I swear by Allah that we strive for martyrdom more than you strive for life … in Chechnya old people, women and weak children are killed and that’s why we chose this path – the path of jihad for the freedom of the Chechen people … even if we are killed, there will come after us thousands of brothers and sisters who are ready to sacrifice themselves.”

For three years now, Chechen separatists have resisted the temptation to resort to hostage-taking. The Moscow drama is a direct consequence of the Kremlin’s brutal behavior. Movsar’s real family name is in fact Suleimanov. The name Baraev is a reference to his uncle Arbi Baraev – his mother’s brother, killed by Russian special forces in April 2001. As Chechnya is a clan-based society with very ancient traditions, Movsar had to pursue his uncle’s combat.

Between the two post-Soviet Chechen wars – from 1996 to 1999 – Chechnya became a real black hole in the heart of the Caucasus. This was a time of an horrendous series of kidnappings and killings, some of them with an alleged connection to Arbi Baraev. But in as murky a political-military underworld as the Caucasus, by 2000 the Russian press was depicting Baraev either as an ally of radical wahhabis or of the Russian FSB. The predominant view in Russian political science circles is that the FSB silenced Arbi Baraev because he knew too much. It’s crucial to remember that Russian specialists trained Chechen special forces to wage war in the Georgian province of Abkhazia. The Chechens certainly learned their lessons well.

Movsar took over after the death of his uncle. The Russians certified him dead at least twice: first in August 2001 and then a few weeks ago. His “martyrdom” now in Moscow – as he warned – won’t prevent the emergence of new Chechen “brothers and sisters” ready to die for the cause. As much as Washington’s military response to September 11 has only engendered further radicalization of a cluster of hardcore Islamist fronts all over the world, Putin’s state terrorism in Chechnya has only engendered a radicalized response striking at the heart of Russia.

Which brings us back to those remarkable images of the veiled Chechen suicide women, holding pistols and strapped with explosives, and then scattered lifeless among the seats of the Moscow theater. In June 2000, Khala Baraeva – no less than a cousin of the young Baraev – drove a vehicle against a special forces building near the Chechen capital of Grozny. Cassettes exalting her are still on sale in that city’s central market. She didn’t hail from the Gulf: she was in fact the first Chechen female suicide attacker. And Putin’s policy in Chechnya will make sure that she is very far from being one of the last.

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