I asked myself: why is he doing it? Why us, why me, at this of all times? We had been sitting with the president at his residence on the western outskirts of Moscow all evening. It was three days after the massacre in Beslan. Russia was in mourning for the hundreds of children mown down in one of the most heinous terrorist acts of the modern age. With tension mounting across the northern Caucasus, with at least one known female suicide bomber on the run in Moscow, with the country in a state of near-panic, why would its leader spend nearly four hours with a group of about three dozen foreign academics, policy-makers and journalists?
I still do not know why, but I can hazard a guess. Vladimir Putin – like so many other Russians with whom I have had dealings over the years – craves a respect and understanding that he believes the west unfairly denies him. He is adamant that Russia is now the epicentre of the global war on terror. He is insistent that his policy towards Chechnya has been flexible and lawful. He is furious that the foreign media refer to “rebels”, not “terrorists”, and he believes that some people abroad – security services and some in government – are helping them to bring Russia to its knees. That is what he wanted to tell us, and he would not cease until he felt we understood.
As we arrived in Novo-Ogarevo, past the gated communities of the new suburban elite, we were taken to an ante-room containing a pool table and a plasma television set. There, we watched the eight o’clock news on Channel 2, the most loyal of all the Russian channels. It failed to ask any of the hard questions about how the Beslan rescue attempt had been so botched, about why the authorities had underestimated the numbers inside the school, about why Chechnya is the way it is. What we did see was image after image of bodies being buried, of mothers and fathers wailing uncontrollably in the pouring rain, of a boy singing “Ave Maria” to a silent crowd in St Petersburg.
Eventually we were taken upstairs, with the warning that the president was in no mood for this meeting. With a wave of the hand, he beckoned us to a long, rectangular table covered with a white cloth. We were seated in alphabetical order and, as Putin invited questions, I was one of those who tentatively raised their hands. He pointed across the table at me.
By way of introduction, I offered our collective condolences. I did not wish to sound insensitive, I ventured, but surely his policy towards Chechnya had some bearing on the broader problem? For the next 30 minutes, Putin gave an uninterrupted exegesis of Russia’s recent history. His eyes were fixed and expressionless; he never hesitated or looked at notes. He conceded that the Chechens had suffered terrible hardship during Stalin’s deportations. They had fought more valiantly than anyone else in defence of the Soviet motherland against fascism. He also suggested that he might not have done what Boris Yeltsin did in 1994 when he unleashed the first of the modern Chechen wars. “I don’t know how I would have acted. Maybe yes, maybe no. But mistakes were made.”
Putin explained that after the Russians withdrew, Chechnya received what it wanted: “de facto independence”. But local leaders allowed it to be run down, encouraged extremism and turned it into a launch pad for terrorists across Russia. “The vacuum was filled by radical fundamentalism of the worst kind,” he said. Men and women were shot by firing squads, beaten with sticks, taken hostage. In 1999, by which point he was prime minister, the Russian government had no choice but to go back in, if only to prevent violence spreading beyond Chechnya’s borders. All the while, Russia searched for political leaders to talk to: “We even tried to deal with people who were bearing arms against us. We have done what you asked for.” The status of Chechnya was not the issue, he said. The independence question has long since been subverted by Islamists with a bigger goal.
His arguments, if selective in their use of history, were carefully framed and fluently put. It was only when he referred to Beslan that he allowed his emotions to show. Even at his angriest, however, he appeared always in control. He finished his treatise – we were still on question number one – by inviting me to ask myself: “Would you like it if people who shoot children in the back come to power, anywhere on this planet? If you asked yourself that, you wouldn’t ask any more questions about Russian policy.”
Yet people are asking those questions. Earlier that day, I had gone to a Metro station that, when I was first a journalist in the USSR in the mid-1980s, I had used to go to work. Rizhskaya is now a shrine, the latest of several across Russia to victims of the new terror. Along a wall, people had placed carnations, photographs and poems to their loved ones. On the evening of 31 August, a “black widow”, as Chechen female suicide bombers are now called, blew herself up outside the station, by a row of shops. The death toll now stands at nine – nothing much compared to Beslan; just another occurrence in a week when two planes had also exploded in the sky.
I took the escalator down to the train, past the advertisements for DVD players and detergents. On the intercom, a recorded message asked travellers to look out for suspicious packages and to inform on suspicious people. But to whom should they report their suspicions? To the two young policemen slouching against a railing? In the carriages, everyone looks at everyone else, wondering what they might be planning, but they all know that they are powerless to do anything about it. My mind wandered to what Putin had said in his TV address to the nation on 4 September: “We showed ourselves to be weak, and the weak get beaten.”
Russia, in the midst of this violence, is weak. Civil society is weak. The freedoms won in the early 1990s are weaker still. The state, for all the professions to the contrary, is also weak. What other conclusions could people draw after watching the events in Beslan unfold live on television? No amount of subsequent censorship could erase what they had seen. Putin became president in 2000 and was re-elected last March on a promise to “deal firmly” with Chechnya and to restore order across the country after what is officially called the “complete chaos” of the Yeltsin years. This interpretation of history is now the staple at academic gatherings, such as the three-day conference in the ancient city of Novgorod to which I had originally been invited, along with the others who eventually met Putin. “The people are tired. They want stability,” said Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a man who has worked with the leaderships of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. Some of the old thinking is back. Russia is not ready for untrammelled markets and free speech (usually lumped together). The group loosely called “democrats” of a decade ago has all but disappeared, leaving individual politicians and journalists to raise concerns such as human rights, often endangering themselves in the process.
One name for the future is Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young member of parliament who stood head and shoulders above others at our gathering. He represents a new generation of more realistic democrats, but nobody believes people such as him have a chance at the next election. Putin will either change the constitution to stay on, or he will appoint a like-minded successor. Just to mount a challenge now is a feat in itself.
As for Russian journalists, two outspoken commentators were prevented, in suspicious circumstances, from reaching Beslan. One collapsed on the plane, apparently after being given a cup of poisoned tea. Another was held by police at Moscow airport after an altercation with a drunk that seemed suspiciously planned. The editor of Izvestiya – once a government mouthpiece but which had become a serious and critical voice – was sacked after his paper reported that the number of hostages in the school was much bigger than officials had said. “Zhurnalyuga” is now a popular term among officials – “journalist-scum”, who they say are just writing under instruction for their oligarch owners. What matters to Putin is that the media do not sully his reputation as the man delivering order.
Some of the people I have known for two decades were prepared to roll back some freedoms in return for greater stability. The screaming of the bloodied children of Beslan has brought home the awful truth that, four years into Putin’s rule, there may be less stability than there has ever been. Western and Russian security officials fear the next target could be a nuclear plant.
Nobody here is naive enough to think that terrorism can be defeated for good. They see “developed countries” (they use the term themselves) such as the US struggling to flush out the various cells in their midst. However, there is a vast difference in Russia. From the lowliest police officer manning a roadblock to an intelligence officer in the FSB (the successor to the KGB) to many in government, there is a suspicion that everyone can be bought, and that many already have been.
Large budget increases for the army, the interior ministry forces and the FSB did not prevent the rescue attempts in Beslan being a shambles. The lessons of a previous siege at a Moscow theatre in October 2002 when Chechens stormed the stage and 129 hostages were killed as the security forces charged in with poison gas, do not seem to have been learned. The state is flailing, using any means possible to exert its control, but this is arbitrary power often outside the rule of law. It is not authority.
Putin uses the word “efficient” time and again. He wants the state to be efficient, the security forces to be efficient and business to be efficient. He seemed to me to be perfectly aware of the extent of the corruption in every walk of life, but his efforts to crack down have been selectively applied. So far the main target has been Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in jail on a charge to which almost all Russians would plead guilty – not paying taxes. His Yukos oil giant is being broken up. Yet similar strictures are not applied to those working in the state. As one banker told me: “Government is business. Everyone has a sideline.” Land is apportioned at nominal prices, just as nationalised industries were privatised among the elite. The rehabilitation of the vast bureaucracy under Putin has led, in the words of one entrepreneur, to a new problem: “You simply don’t know who to bribe any more.”
Yet on one level, the place is booming. Sports cars, designer shops and expensive restaurants are now the norm for a sizeable number of people in the big cities. The conspicuous consumption that began in the early 1990s has not waned. Everyone is out simply to make money. And there are rich pickings to be had from Chechnya. Who gains from oil tankers leaving the republic? Who, strangely, does not seem to get fired upon by either side? What has happened to the billions in state funds that were supposed to go towards reconstruction? These are rhetorical questions posed by intelligent Russians. There is precious little evidence, because nobody would survive if they found any.
Conspiracy theories abound. Intriguingly, the foreign country that arouses most sympathy is Israel. Israeli commentators are in vogue and the Israeli security services are said to be helping the Russians. Suspicion of western motives has returned. Vitaly Tretyakov established one of the bravest newspapers of the 1990s, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Yet when westerners at our gathering challenged Putin’s Chechnya policy, he suggested that certain foreigners were encouraging terrorists to undermine Russia. The invasion of Iraq had been part of a concerted attempt, he said, to “take the war on terror off America’s shores”.
Chechnya, Putin told us, is not Iraq. “It is not a faraway land. It is a crucial part of our territory. This is about Russia’s territorial integrity.” It was now being used as a launch pad, he said, and “certain foreign” elements were encouraging the violence. The president told us he had confronted his western counterparts about it, had even named names, only to be told that they knew nothing about it. “We’ve observed incidents. It’s a replay of the mentality of the cold war. There are certain people who want us to be focused purely on our internal problems. They pull strings here so that we don’t raise our heads internationally.”
Russia, he insisted, no longer had “imperial” pretensions beyond its border. It was not comfortable with Nato enlargement into the once-Soviet Baltic states. He did not see why so-called partners wanted to fly fighter jets alongside Russian airspace. This, he added, resorting to another Soviet word, was nothing but a “provocation”. His country did not have the resources to guard its borders properly. A weak and unstable Russia was in nobody’s interests. “Has anyone given a thought to what would happen if Russia were eliminated?”
Putin did not ascribe malign motives to foreign leaders, particularly George W Bush, a “good man, a decent man” who had proven himself a “predictable and reliable partner”. For all their disputes over Iraq, Bush had worked hard at “normalising” the situation. (One wonders, if the Iraq war were starting now, whether Putin would still oppose it.) John Kerry was not mentioned, nor was Tony Blair or other European leaders. However, Putin had nothing but praise for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both, he pointed out, had struggled to introduce privatisation even in countries that “functioned effectively”; indeed, he said, showing his grasp of British history, Thatcher would not have survived without the Falklands war. Russia had moved too quickly in the 1990s and chaos had ensued. In principle, however, “no one disputes that a free market is more efficient than a planned economy”. The same went for freedom of speech. It was an essential part of a country’s development, but journalists, too, had to be “efficient”. Putin likened the relationship between state and media to something he had seen in an Italian film. “The role of the real man is to make advances. The role of the real woman is to resist them.” He smiled a rare smile.
We had got through several cups of black tea and finished our individual fruit sponge-cakes. It was beyond midnight. We had been with our host for three and three-quarter hours. Whatever else may be happening, Putin is utterly in control of the political structures of Russia. His is a most unromantic view of his country and the world. His iciness is, however, tinged with the odd flicker of charm. A mindset that might seem fixed does seem occasionally amenable to a new idea – but everything in good time.
On Chechnya and terrorism, he said, there was no other way. He is prepared to hold parliamentary elections. He wants more Chechens in the local security force. He wants to open a dialogue, but not with “child killers”. “I don’t advise you to meet Bin Laden, to invite him to Brussels and Nato or to the White House, to hold talks with him and let him dictate what he wants so that he then leaves you alone.” Russia’s forces might, if the situation calmed down and if local people could be found to run the place properly, return to barracks, but they would never leave. If they did, nobody would be safe. He simply could not understand why people abroad could see things differently. Did we have no conscience? With that he stood up and walked round the room, shaking our hands, his eyes firmly fixed on each and every one of us.