Just after the end of the hostage-taking at the school in Beslan, North Ossetia, from 1st to 3rd September 2004, Vladimir Putin used a phrase of Stalin's to announce new restrictions by the authorities: "If you are weak, you get attacked". Russia, he explained in a television broadcast, had just suffered a terrorist attack because it had shown that it was weak. Mr Putin announced an immediate series of countermeasures whereby politics would come under new control throughout the country, most notably by the removal of the election by universal suffrage of the regional governors. In this sense the drama of Beslan was a decisive moment in the political transformation of Putin's Russia.Accédez à cet article sur Lemonde.fr
For this reason very few observers were expecting that the publication, on Wednesday 28 December, of the preliminary results of the parliamentary commission of inquiry into the events would be likely in any way to cast a critical light on the conduct, by the central authorities, of the final stages of the hostage-taking that marked the commencement of the 2004 academic year in North Ossetia - still less to raise the more general question of the policy pursued by the Kremlin in the North Caucasus, where violence is continuing to spread.
Having decided, after some hesitation, to set up the parliamentary commission, the Kremlin was careful to place it under the control of United Russia, the party that supports the President, placing at its head the MP Alexander Torshin. Sixteen months after the opening of the inquiry Mr Torshin presented his report, just three days before the New Year festival which, in Russia, is the best way to ensure that its contents and omissions rapidly get forgotten.
In his conclusions Mr Torshin has exonerated the Russian federal authorities from all responsibility over the tragic outcome of the hostage-taking. He has reserved his only criticisms for the regional police forces of North Ossetia and Ingushetia, declaring that but for their "negligence" and "carelessness" the tragedy "could have been avoided."
"MISTAKES" BY THOSE IN CHARGE OF OPERATIONS
Three hundred and thirty-one people, including 186 children, lost their lives during the attack on School Number 1 by an armed band consisting of Chechen and Ingush fighters. Most of the victims died in the fire that took hold at the moment of the assault by Russian special forces on the third day of the siege.
The report by Mr Torshin acknowledges that the Russian authorities lied about the number of hostages: the school-children, relatives and teachers locked in the gymnasium numbered 1,128, not 354 as announced at the outset. Mr Torshin has identified as solely responsible for this mistake General Valery Andreyev, formerly the head of the Ossetian branch of the FSB (the Russian security service) - but has not considered the question of who gave the orders.
On the more sensitive matters before the commission of inquiry, such as the utilisation by the Russian army of flame-throwers and tanks during their assault, and the cause of the explosions in the gymnasium, where a number of the hostages were burnt alive, Mr Torshin has not examined the actions of the forces of law and order. He has stated that the tanks did not go into action until after 3 p.m. on Saturday 3rd September and that all the hostages had already been evacuated from the school.
This statement is contradicted by a number of witness statements. The report considers that a shot by a Russian sniper fired at one of the terrorists could not have caused the first of the explosions - a conclusion with which witnesses also disagree.
If Mr Torshin's report establishes that there were "mistakes" by those in charge during the conduct of the operations, it is silent on the role played by the FSB's number one, Nikolai Patrushev, Mr Putin's trusted confidant and appointee. On Wednesday a representative of the Committee of Mothers of Beslan, Susanna Dudiyeva, expressed indignation at these omissions, and said the report "leaves the most important questions unanswered." Many Beslan residents say they are convinced that the truth will never come out.
Mr Putin did not make any public statement on Wednesday on Beslan, preferring to express satisfaction at the level of Russian arms exports to other countries.
At the same time that the Kremlin is exerting itself, by the passage of a new law, to restrict the activities of NGOs in Russia, President Putin seeks ways to ensure that neither Beslan nor Chechnya will cast their shadows over the G8 summit which he will host in St Petersburg a few months from now.
Translated by Jeremy Putley