The siege of Middle School 1 in Beslan shows that Putin's hardline policy towards Chechnya is in tatters, writes John Kampfner.
The images of children being carried naked and covered in blood from Middle School 1 in Beslan, beamed live on the main TV networks in Russia, are traumatizing the nation. Russians had become used to terrorist attacks. They had become grimly immune to them as they entrusted their president, Vladimir Putin, with a carte blanche in his military response. But it is the nature of this particular attack - the focus on tiny babies in one of the poorest parts of the country - that makes this different. This truly is Russia's 9/11.
But after the shock, after the anger and the grieving for those who have died, what then? The immediate response is despondency and despair. Putin's iron fist has got nowhere. This was a man who promised to restore order after what his supporters call the "chaos" of the Yeltsin years, including Chechnya. After two military invasions, thousands dead, rigged elections and countless bomb attacks in Moscow and the Caucasus, he appears further away than ever from victory in his own war on terror.
Putin previously insisted that Chechnya was a purely domestic issue. Now he appears to be changing tack, talking of the international nature of the threat. Beslan is now officially listed as part of the same Islamist assault on "civilised" values that led to the attacks on Twin Towers in New York and Atocha station in Madrid.
The pro-Putin political class (it is quite hard nowadays to find many people who publicly express differing views) is also expressing increasing anger at what it regards as the west's double standards. Russia gave the United States unequivocal support in September 2001, so why is the west not doing the same in September 2004? "It is time to put an end to this ambiguity in western minds, which makes the devil of terrorism turn into a rough, but generally nice guy, as soon as he steps from the outside world into Chechnya?" writes political commentator Vladimir Simonov.
In the midst of the crisis, Putin received what he needed from the United Nations - a blanket condemnation of the terrorists, without any link to Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. As he seeks to assert his own authority, Putin will ensure he reinforces that message to other world leaders.
But the likes of George Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac also have an opportunity now, to impress upon Putin the need not just to improve security - and anyone who has had dealings with Russian road blocks or airport staff knows how easy it is to slip some cash to be waved through - but also to find political interlocutors, not puppets, in Chechnya. Given the public mood here that will not be easy. And even if talks began, even if international organizations such as the UN or EU became involved, there is no guarantee that the terror would abate. There is no shortage of individual Chechens who are willing to blow themselves up, and as many Russians with them, to avenge what they see as more than a decade of brutalism directed by the Kremlin.
After the simultaneous plane destructions and the bomb outside Atocha station in Madrid metro station, the "normalisation" that Putin likes to profess is in tatters. Politicians I have spoken to here are preparing for more attacks to follow Beslan. Their worst predictions are for a strike on a nuclear plant.
Military and police reinforcements have been ordered, partly to deter, partly to reassure, although they are unlikely to do much of both. Questions are raised about Putin's future, only to dissipate with the realization that for the foreseeable future there is no alternative. The more immediate question in the minds of ordinary people is whether they and their children can get through the next day without bloodshed.
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