09/08/2004, 00.00
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Putin, the prisoner of the Caucasus

by Vladimir Rozanskij

After the Beslan massacre, an expert analyzes where Russia and the West is going in the confrontation with Islamic terrorism

Moscow (AsiaNews) - A famous novel by Pushkin tells of the dangers and perils that Russian travellers could expect in the early 19th century, among the gorges and harshness of those ancient and mysterious lands that rise as southern guard of the Asian continent.  The novel is entitled "The Prisoner of the Caucasus", and has never before seemed so prophetic of the condition in which the president of that very Russian state, Vladimir Putin, currently finds himself.  His ascent to the head of government and, 5 years ago, to the Russian Federation itself, had in fact been conditioned by the explosion of terrorist bombs that had sown so many victims, not only in the lands of the south, but also in Moscow itself, giving a final blow to what, by then, was the teetering throne of Yeltsin and clearing the way for a new "strong man".


Putin's leadership was subsequently confirmed, almost by acclamation, in the general elections of March 2000, effectively making any political or administrative consultation redundant: in fact, he and his candidates are absolutely unbeatable; theirs is the same cast-iron probability of the single-party candidates of Soviet memory.  The reason for such absolute pre-eminence has always been tied to the deep drama of events: Russia needs to use force to resist the destructive attack of the forces of evil.  Today as yesterday, the inhumane face of terror stands out against the silhouette of the Caucasian mountains, and calls all of Russia to unite as one person in its response, making its leader a banner for revival and liberation.  Certainly, Russian citizens are ever more asking themselves why, after 5 long years, this dramatic issue has gone from bad to worse, why it has gone from destroyed homes to devastated cities in the entire Chechnya, in a ferocious conflict with no holds barred on both sides, up to the slaughter of hostages in the Dubrovka Theatre of Moscow, and now even the slaughter of the innocents of Beslan.  Grozny, with the assassination of its leaders, has been a revolving door of generals, mediators, puppet-governments; draconian measures have been taken in the entire country to the point that civil liberties have been limited almost more than in the Soviet period.  The ever-present police continues its surveillance and the use of violence, if not physical at least psychological, against any passer-by whose skin is in the least bit olive-tinged.  Yet underground train stations continue to be a place of fear and mutual suspicion, when not of actual pain and desperation. Certainly, there has been American's September 11th, which confirmed what Putin himself has been saying since 1999: there exists a network of international terrorism that has declared war on advanced countries, uniting even Russia and America in a single axis of evil, like at the times of German Nazism.  Wars come along in Afghanistan and Iraq, with all their contradictions and open questions, making Russians think that, after all, the worst is elsewhere, and the Americans too are able to pass themselves off as wicked.  Yet there is no respite from dismay, there can never be enough force to ward off terror, a sense of resignation and anguish starts to take hold, there is no possible future on the horizon.  And then Beslan, the worst of horrors, worse than the Twin Towers, worse than any Iraq or any Palestine, mothers that shoot at children.


Resignation is becoming tangible not only in Russia, but in the entire world where, more than fighting terrorism, there are those who, by now, are seeking to exploit things in the name of partisan interests: Russia against America, France against England, the right against the left.  The time has come perhaps to say unequivocally that there is no clash of civilizations underway, there is no war of Islam against Christianity, of the poor against the rich or of moderates against radicals: war is only a tragedy of men against men, in which the losers are but human beings, the most weak and defenceless.  The Caucasus symbolizes this distraught world; however much one tries to compartmentalize reality, it is impossible in that land to draw the line of one against the other, of Orthodox Ossetians against Muslim Ingush, or Buddhist Kalmuckians, or Jewish Daghestan, or Gregorian Armenians.  There is no limit between moderate Islam and international fundamentalism, between nationalist Cossacks and pro-American Georgians.  The sociology and history of religion become a card game to deal out on the green table of cynical international politics, raising the stakes on the basis of what is convenient for the arms trade, the petroleum market and the poppy fields, if not for holding on to the petty seats of some national or continental parliament.  Causes are invented to defend vested interests; recriminations are made to hide one's own lies. 


Putin's attackers are trigger happy, this is clear.  A bit like American cowboys, they are not standing by waiting for a smoking gun: they prefer to shoot first.  The Russian President himself has little faith in the search for dialogue and consensus: he grew up in the school of unique thought and armed peace; many shortcomings can be attributed to his colleague in Washington, certainly not a champion of multicultural tolerance.  But, it is hard to imagine that others in their place would have done better, above all those who preach easy pacifism and the embrace of diversities, when the problem is losing one's own identity in the tragedy of a war that started long ago.  There is no anti-Putin in Russia, there is nowhere in the world an anti-Bush capable of putting an end to all this horror with the shake of a hand and calls to mutual understanding.  Putin's speech to the nation, following the tragedy, made his powerlessness dramatically clear: in promising yet another security service reform, he called on citizens of the Russian Federation to give proof of unity and solidarity. In the name of what, he was no longer able to say, nor was he able to put on display the anger of early days, when he would promise to conquer all enemies.  Solidarity among people is not a product of promises or ideals, it needs to be lived day after day, bowing one's head in the face of pain, learning from wounds not to judge, as not to be judged; fighting evil, from whatever side it arrives, without professing to be the incarnation of Good.  He who said to be so was not, in fact, a prince of the world: He was a Man on the cross.

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