Few lessons learned from Beslan

From New York, September 2001, to London, July 2005, the horrors of terrorism have become all too familiar. And yet nobody will forget the sound of explosions, of children screaming and gunfire crackling at School Number One in Beslan a year ago. In Russia, the first day of the academic year is marked by joyful rituals as parents, pupils and teachers exchange gifts. Habits such as these have withstood changes of regime. They remain to this day a point of social reference in a society denuded of stability and dignity. Beslan, nondescript and impoverished like so many small towns that occupy the former Soviet space, has come to epitomise the dangerous contradictions of Russian politics and the threat they pose to the rest of the world. A state that can lock up billionaires such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, that can drug and kill journalists who ask awkward questions, is still a long way from creating a viable civil society and, confronted with crisis, invariably fails in its response.

So many questions remain unanswered about the siege: how and why did the storming of the school begin on the third day? What started the blaze that caused the collapse of the roof in the gymnasium where the hostages were being held? And did those trying to free them end up killing more people than the terrorists did? The nature of President Putin's rule and the precedent of the two previous terrorist hostage takings - at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in 2002 and in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk in 1995 - suggest that none of the various inquires will come close to revealing the truth. The families of the 331 victims, more than half of them children, have long given up hope of being treated with respect by the state. Opinion polls suggest that most Russians share the view that officials mishandled the response to the siege and have sought to cover up their errors.

Three days after the massacre, Putin spent four hours at his Moscow residence with a foreign delegation, including a correspondent of the New Statesman, entreating and warning the world to believe in his approach to solving Russia's problems: force, and force alone, to deal with the Chechen insurgency, and the power of the state to reintroduce "efficiency" into political and economic life. In the intervening year, Russia has prospered from surging oil and gas revenues. Foreign investors have, as ever, put the profit motive ahead of moral considerations in dealing with the oligarchs and their political associates, who have carved up the nation's resources between them. Democracy is in a more parlous state than it has been for a decade. The wealth gap is as wide as ever. Unlike any comparable country, life expectancy is dropping. On Russia's peripheries, particularly Chechnya and the whole of the northern Caucasus, the situation is desperately unstable.

And yet . . . Russia continues to function. Its young people travel. A brain drain continues apace, although much talent remains. In many respects Russians have learned to live impervious to the politics of the state. If Putin wants to stand for a third term in 2008, he will engineer a change in the constitution to allow him to do so. Any credible opponent will be induced or threatened not to challenge him. There is no obvious replacement if he does not stand, but a figure will emerge from the shadows to do his bidding, and that of a security/business establishment which depends on him. There are no crumbs of comfort for the Beslan bereaved, only perhaps the faint hope that eventually Russians will find a way of reforming a state which enjoys a surfeit of power and a shortage of authority, and has shown itself unable to help when people need it most.

Best bloke for the job

Ken Clarke: what's not to like? A mind of his own and doesn't mind speaking it, bags of experience, eccentric footwear, eccentric headwear, ale by the pint, that amused, disbelieving manner when talking to Paxman, the jazz, the quilt-making wife, the hair (top Tories often struggle there), the sense of humour (ditto), right about Iraq, born and bred in the county of his constituency (Notts) and all-round hail-fellow-well-met. A bit slippery for sure, but he can get tickets to Test matches (he was there at the weekend) and that can make a chap very popular these days. Yes, at 65 he's pushing it, but Gladstone was prime minister at 84 and you don't hear many people complaining about him, do you?

The record may show that Clarke is a true-blue Thatcherite (she gave him his big breaks and called him her "candid friend"), but there are mitigating circumstances. For one, it was he who talked her into quitting, which alone might be worth the gift, from a grateful nation, of a burial plot in Westminster Abbey. And, though he has recently recanted, he was pro-Europe once, at some cost to his career. True, he had the reputation of a minister who, at the moment when his department was sliding into the ordure, would skip lightly to his next portfolio and leave his successor with the mess. Those debts were probably paid off, however, when he stepped into Norman Lamont's almighty mess in 1993 and proved almost competent as chancellor.

From this political distance (and, it must be said, it's quite a distance), Clarke seems to have the makings of a good Tory leader, perhaps too good in some respects. He might rescue the art of opposition, left in such peril by Robin Cook's death, but he might also rescue his party, with all the misery that that implies. He is interesting, but he is dangerous, too. This seems a moment to have it both ways and so, in the comfortable knowledge that it can only do his candidacy harm, we offer Ken Clarke the New Statesman's endorsement.

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