Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Dissident Sees Shadows of Beslan in Georgia War --- Risks of Activism In Russia Are Seen In Mother's Fight

The Wall Street Journal, 25th August 2008 16:31

By Andrew Osborn

BESLAN, Russia -- As Ella Kesayeva watched footage of tanks from Russia's 58th Army rumbling into Georgia recently, it stirred powerful memories.

Four years ago, the blunt-spoken mother of one watched as tanks from the same units fired directly into a school here in Beslan, ending a disastrous standoff with hostage-takers espousing independence for Chechnya. That siege -- the worst terrorist episode in Russian history -- resulted in 334 deaths, including two of Ms. Kesayeva's nephews and her brother-in-law.

The bloodshed transformed Ms. Kesayeva from a beer-garden proprietor into one of the most outspoken critics of Russia's government. She wants the Kremlin to admit it botched the siege, fully disclose what occurred and punish "incompetent" officials.

The pounding of the school was "a concrete crime," she says, insisting that hostages were still inside, an assertion the Kremlin rejects.

Ms. Kesayeva's activist group, the Voice of Beslan, has called Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "an accomplice" in the hostages' deaths.

The Kremlin's steadily tightening grip over politics and public discourse in Russia in recent years has left less room for independent groups like Ms. Kesayeva's. Controlled by the pro-Kremlin party, Russia's Parliament has amended laws to make criticism of government officials illegal and complicate registration of groups without official backing. Major broadcast media are rigidly controlled by the Kremlin and freeze out critics.

Ms. Kesayeva sees disturbing parallels between Russia's handling of Beslan and its small victorious war against Georgia. As in Beslan, she says the Kremlin has released misinformation to bolster its cause, establishing an official narrative that it is "unpatriotic" to question.

While convinced that the Georgian government bears much of the blame for the conflict, she says the Russian government could have avoided bloodshed had it acted more decisively earlier, by unambiguously spelling out its readiness to defend South Ossetia, for example. First in Beslan, and now in Georgia, she believes that Moscow has shown its true credo: the pursuit of raw power. The fate of ordinary people comes second, she laments.

"In Beslan, Russian politicians used the blood of children to strengthen power internally," she says, referring to the rollback of electoral rights that immediately followed. "Now they want to strengthen their power externally."

Ms. Kesayeva's campaign hasn't been smooth. She has faced criminal charges, including accusations that she assaulted court officials and yanked the hair of a female opponent. Her criticism of Mr. Putin triggered an investigation into the group's allegedly "extremist" behavior, and Kremlin-friendly media have launched personal attacks against her, suggesting she is profiting from her campaign.

Last year, in a twist straight out of a Russian novel, Ms. Kesayeva was suddenly ousted from the Voice of Beslan in a vote by people who said later that their signatures had been misused.

Covered live on global television, the Beslan attack stunned Russia and the world. With official propaganda focused on Russia's oil-fired return to prosperity and power, the Kremlin swiftly moved to change the subject. A parliamentary probe dragged on for years before releasing its findings with little publicity. The law-enforcement investigation limps on to this day. Trials were limited to one surviving terrorist and a few low-level policemen accused of incompetence.

Before the siege, Ms. Kesayeva and her teenage daughter lived with her sister's family in a modest red-brick house opposite a gas station less than five minutes from Beslan's School No. 1. It was a tight-knit family; the two sisters ran a small beer cafe out of their yard.

On Sept. 1, 2004, two truckloads of armed terrorists seized the school demanding that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya. They held over 1,100 hostages for three days without food and water. Three hundred and thirty four hostages -- more than half of them children -- died in a chaotic and violent denouement, key episodes of which remain contested to this day.

Bulldozers moved in the next day, clearing debris that included body parts. The day after that, the school was opened to the public, who traipsed through its bloody rubble. Critics said vital evidence was destroyed. The cleanup was so sloppy that locals found spent grenade-launcher tubes on rooftops days later. Months later, a local man found clumps of hair and body parts on a garbage heap.

Ms. Kesayeva's daughter survived the ordeal, but her two nephews and brother-in-law didn't. In the immediate aftermath, Ms. Kesayeva and her widowed sister, Emma, joined Mothers of Beslan, a victims' group. As details emerged of the way in which the authorities handled the siege, the group became increasingly critical of the Kremlin.

When then-President Putin agreed to meet the group's members on the tragedy's first anniversary, divisions surfaced. Ms. Kesayeva, among others, refused to attend. "He was guilty for the death of our children," she says.

Weeks later, the group split over the involvement of some members with a faith-healer who claimed he could resurrect Beslan's dead children. Ms. Kesayeva said it was a Kremlin ruse to discredit the group.

In October 2005, she left to form the Voice of Beslan. By then, the trial of the only terrorist the authorities said had survived was in full swing. It became a public platform to air accusations against the authorities. Victims initially threw shoes at the defendant -- who was later sentenced to life in prison -- but some came to sympathize with him, won over by his readiness to talk about what happened.

New members flocked to the Voice of Beslan, but Ms. Kesayeva says she was too busy to screen them. Tensions soon flared over a declaration by the group that said Mr. Putin wasn't worthy to stand for a third presidential term.

Ms. Kesayeva continued her campaign work. In June 2007, she and her supporters lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Voice of Beslan charged the Russian government with violating the Beslan victims' rights to life and with frustrating the right to an objective investigation. The case has yet to be examined.

Early this year, a regional prosecutor charged the group with extremism, citing a 2005 letter it wrote calling Mr. Putin "an accomplice" in the Beslan attack. The Kremlin has expanded the definition of extremism to cover slander of a public official. The case is pending.

Today, Ms. Kesayeva works from what used to be her dead nephews' bedroom. The children's computer is used for campaign work, while the shelves that once held their school books and clothes are stacked with case files.

Some residents in Beslan, where emotions lie just beneath the surface, feel uncomfortable with her crusade and think it's time to focus on the future, not the town's dark past. They say that Ms. Kesayeva doesn't represent their views, which echo the Kremlin's line on the tragedy.

Sitting in her yard leafing through the latest legal correspondence, Ms Kesayeva says she's determined to carry on. She says that recent events in Tskhinvali, the beleaguered capital of South Ossetia, suggest that the Kremlin remains obsessed with boosting its power, at all costs.

"Russian citizens were worth nothing here in the school," she says. "And it's the same in Tskhinvali."