Why didn't the Russians cede Chechnya?

Vladimir Putin: From henchman to president

The ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin submissively serves himself up until he is finally a close confidante of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. When the oligarchs, the real rulers of the country, were looking for a successor for Yeltsin in 1999, they chose the supposed henchman. Today Putin has been in power for two decades

It is Wednesday, October 23, 2002. The second act of the musical “Nord-Ost” has just started in the sold-out Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. Six actors are dancing on stage with a smile when around 40 black hooded figures storm into the hall with rifles at 9:05 p.m. One of the gunmen jumps to the performers on stage and fires into the air.

The musicians in the orchestra pit break off and the attacker calls out to the more than 800 spectators that they are hostages and are not allowed to move.

Soldiers play an important role in the musical, and some visitors initially think that all of this is part of the performance. But then they also realize that it is serious. Screams can be heard here and there, some people cry. But there is no panic among the guests, everyone remains seated in their red armchairs.

Chechen hostage-takers want to establish a state of God

The Dubrovka Theater is less than four kilometers from the Kremlin. The terrorists probably chose it as a target for symbolic reasons: The musical “Nord-Ost” glorifies Russian history - the history of their enemy.

Because the hooded are among Chechen Islamists who want to establish a state of God in the Caucasus and have been fighting for the independence of their region from Russia for years. Now they have carried the war to the capital of the enemy, to a place where Russia's greatness is celebrated every evening.

In a previously recorded video message, Mowsar Barayev, the 22-year-old leader of the terrorists, calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Otherwise he and his people would kill the hostages. They are ready to die for their cause.

Among the attackers are women whose husbands or brothers were killed by the Russians - the Russian press will call them “black widows”. Some have explosive belts strapped around their stomachs. The hostage-takers use adhesive tape to attach other bombs they made themselves to theater chairs: plastic bags filled with explosives and small iron balls.

Police arrive outside; Together with soldiers from a barracks, the officers cordoned off the theater - but initially so patchy that a possibly drunk 26-year-old woman who lived nearby got into the building in the morning and yelled at the Chechens to let people go. The Islamists think she is an agent of the Russian secret service and shoot her. The first victim.

The war in Chechnya made Vladimir Putin great

The next day, the former Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly advised that the terrorists should be guaranteed free withdrawal and the beginning of peace negotiations in the Caucasus if they released the civilians.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who keeps himself informed about every new development in the Kremlin, Gorbachev's sentences must sound like the talk of a distant man. The war in Chechnya made Putin great. Without this bloody conflict, he might never have made it to the top of Russia. The campaign was his message to his compatriots that the time of defeat was over.

The fact that his troops in the Caucasus (as well as the opposing side) have been committing, kidnapping, torturing and murdering human rights violations has not hurt Putin. On the contrary: after the humiliation caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Russians apparently share his opinion that their country can no longer cope with any further weakening, that it cannot cede an inch of land.

In their eyes, Gorbachev, who is willing to compromise, embodies the infirmity of the late USSR, while Putin embodies the resurgent Russia. The former KGB officer rules out negotiations with the hostage-takers and orders that special intelligence units train to storm the theater in an identical Moscow house of culture.

Exchange demand: hostages against Russian MPs

At the same time, several negotiators entangle the terrorists in a nervous game of constantly changing demands and offers. A doctor who was allowed into the building reports that the hostages are doing well according to the circumstances, some looked hysterical, but most of them calm. The orchestra pit has been converted into a mass toilet.

The Chechens (who let children and pregnant women go on the first night) offer to release all foreigners - because their enemies are the Russians. But Moscow's negotiators refuse to classify prisoners according to nationality. For a short time it is said that Mowsar Barayev would exchange ten hostages for every member of the Russian parliament who came to the theater. Soon several representatives of the people announce their readiness to do so in front of cameras.

The terrorists, meanwhile, demand Akhmat Kadyrov, a former comrade-in-arms who defected to the Russians, as hostage and offer 50 civilians for him. But Kadyrov does not make himself available.

Putin wants to use deadly nerve gas

Two days pass like this. Again and again the hostage-takers release a few prisoners. With this, they probably want to delay a storm in the building, and perhaps hope that the Kremlin will at least respond to some of their demands. But Putin's decision has been made. He wants to attack special forces. With a nerve gas that leads to fainting and can cause breathing to stop after a while.

There will very likely be deaths, Putin accepts that. But he wants to demonstrate strength. It is his trademark, his program. "Russia will either be a strong state or it will not be - at least not as it has been up to now," he said before his election as president. Because he has seen for himself what happens when Moscow shows weakness.

Putin as a Russian spy in the GDR

In the epoch of 1989, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was stationed as a KGB man in Dresden - and very disillusioned. He dreamed of being a spy all his life. Since he was a boy, he wanted to work in the secret service, to do heroic deeds for his country. At that time he often fought in the backyards of his hometown Leningrad, and as a hyperactive child he was always in trouble at school and simply didn't obey. Only through boxing and judo training was he able to channel his energy, learned discipline and internalized a lesson for life: "The weak are beaten."

At 16 he registered with the KGB to apply, where he was advised to study first, preferably law. At the university things went according to plan, the secret service actually recruited him and later trained him for work in the GDR. Putin received lessons in German, cultural studies and etiquette. In 1985 he went to Dresden with his wife Ljudmila, a former stewardess.

Putin only in the second row

But now, four years later, he finds himself in a dead end. He still fulfills his task of recruiting GDR citizens as agents who are then deployed in western countries: Apparently he has a special talent for gaining the trust of others. "He was able to respond to them, almost merge with them," a colleague from the State Security will later say. "A listener who aims to get the other person to reveal himself, but to show himself as little as possible." The ideal spy, actually.

But the KGB elite is based in Berlin; the second and third rows work in Dresden. Putin is far from power, does not attract attention, has lost his drive. The 37-year-old drinks and celebrates a lot. Has affairs and beats his wife (as the alleged friend complains, who works for the West German secret service BND).

Difficult times are dawning for Putin and his family

Through his work, Putin realizes how far the west has elapsed from the east. But the leaders in Moscow seem to misjudge the situation. When the GDR regime collapsed at the end of 1989, Moscow simply ducked.

On the evening of December 6th, citizens of Dresden stormed the Stasi headquarters there, around 50 of them ran to a villa in which the KGB resides. Putin is standing at the gate with some Russian soldiers. With just one sentence, as one civil rights activist recalls, he gets the crowd to withdraw: "I am a soldier to the death."

He stayed at his post until late at night - and waited in vain for orders from Moscow. The headquarters are silent: for Putin, a desertion by the state, an experience that shakes him. At that time, he will later say, it became clear to him that “the Soviet Union was sick with a deadly disease called paralysis. A paralysis of power ”.

In February 1990 he went back to Leningrad. There he moves into a shabby apartment on the outskirts with his wife, two daughters and his parents. The KGB now lets him work at the university as an assistant to the prorector for international issues.

It is a difficult time. Russia's economy is tumbling, and the shelves in supermarkets are often empty. Putin has to provide for his family, but does not earn much; his parents, former factory workers, are 80 years old and his mother has cancer. When his former law professor Anatoly Sobchak became mayor in June 1991, Putin accepted the offer to work on his staff and resigned from the KGB.

Hardly in politics, he saw the end of the Soviet Union. It hurts him - not as the failure of an idea, but as the defeat of Russia. Later, as President, he will call the collapse of the USSR the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century".

Putin's rise

Putin develops new ambitions. With strong words he makes it clear what he means by a functioning state. For every police officer killed, he says, ten criminals should die, "within the law, of course."

Putin combats the shortage in the city quite efficiently, organizing, for example, the distribution of thousands of aid packages from Germany. Sobchak is satisfied, makes him deputy.

But Putin also shows weaknesses. Public speech is not his business. After a session of the city parliament, said Mayor Sobchak, he is "very blue in the face and as if emaciated by several pounds". Putin is, it seems, a background man.

In 1996 he helped organize the campaign for Sobchak's re-election. His mentor, entangled in allegations of corruption, is lost - but for Putin the defeat is not a career turnaround, but rather the beginning of his ascent to the center of power: a former companion who works as an economist in the Kremlin administration sits down for him Anatolij Chubajs, the head of the presidential administration.

Corruption and intrigue rule Russia

And indeed: Putin is given a post in Moscow. From the Soviet era, the Kremlin still has an opaque network of hundreds of companies and thousands of buildings and land worth a total of $ 650 billion, and Putin is now jointly responsible for real estate abroad, looks after its maintenance and sale and probably also decides who it is to what extent may use.

He soon sees what is going on in Moscow, how widespread corruption is and how often intrigues are spun in which competitors are eliminated with compromising material from dark sources. He also observes that it is not political competence that determines access to Boris Yeltsin, who has been weakened by illness - but money, as has the billionaire Boris Berezovsky, the president's most important whisperer.

Putin will not have escaped how Berezovsky helped Boris Yeltsin to be re-elected in the summer of 1996 with the help of his media empire. Now he experiences up close that political power is bought in Russia. Berezovsky bluntly states that thanks to funding from Yeltsin's election campaign, he and other billionaires have acquired the right to fill government posts. Politics, he explains, is still "the most lucrative business area" in Russia.

Putin is reliable and efficient, and so in March 1997 he was promoted from Yeltsin to one of several deputy heads of the presidential administration. Among other things, he now has to review the nationwide implementation of new laws and presidential decrees - and quickly realizes how powerless Moscow is in the province.

The quiet servant

Russia is federally organized, and mafia clans or opaque business people are often in charge in the more than 80 administrative districts and semi-autonomous republics. They buy majorities in the local parliaments or let themselves be elected into key positions. Some regions issue taxes or even tariffs on their own, without the money ever reaching the tax authorities.

Russia at that time was being exploited by a few men who made money and influence during the years of post-Soviet privatization. At least now, Putin's conviction that his fatherland needs a strong, assertive government in order to survive is solidifying. But he doesn't warn or denounce. Instead, it continues to serve quietly. In the Kremlin, which is dominated by strong egos, Putin is reserved and inconspicuous. He doesn't talk much, delivers on time. A useful apparatchik, apparently without great ambition. One that you can use, but that does not become dangerous to you.

Scandal over the Russian Attorney General

In May 1998 Putin moved further up, became the first deputy head of the presidential administration, shortly afterwards head of the FSB secret service, the successor to the KGB. “I'm going back to where I belong,” he says when he introduces him.

When the Russian attorney general Yury Skuratov began investigations against Yeltsin's circle (which also includes Berezovsky) for embezzlement of public funds and corruption in 1998, a film soon appeared in which a man resembling Skuratov was seen having sex with two prostitutes. The attorney general denies being filmed. But the evening news shows the recording - and intelligence chief Putin confirms its authenticity in an interview.

A successor for Yeltsin is needed

Skuratov is done, the investigation is officially closed. And Yeltsin and Berezovsky are increasingly convinced that they have found the right man in Putin for the very big task.

Because it is clear that the heart and alcohol sick Yeltsin will not hold out much longer. And so he and his confidants are looking for a successor who, as President, will continue to run the business in their favor. A straw man who asserts their interests and otherwise holds back.

Yeltsin has already tried three candidates, appointed them prime ministers, and then watched them do. But in the end they all turned out to be loyal public servants who did not place themselves firmly enough in front of Yeltsin and his corrupt environment.

Now Putin gets his chance. On August 9, 1999 he becomes the new Prime Minister. The Russians don't care. A Moscow newspaper certifies the new thing to have the "charisma of a dried shark".

If Putin wants to stay in power longer, he has to win popular sympathy, because in Russia too, elections ultimately decide on political careers. He needs a topic in order to distinguish himself.

"In an emergency we will kill them on the toilet"

In the month of his inauguration, several hundred Chechen Islamists invade neighboring Dagestan (which, like Chechnya, is part of Russia as a republic). They announce that they want to conquer the entire northern Caucasus and establish a caliphate. Moscow is sending units to fight them back.

In September, several bomb attacks hit Moscow, killing over 200 people, many of them children. Without presenting clear evidence, Putin blames the separatists for the terror. "You can only respond to that with violence," he announced on television. "We'll hunt them down and kill them, if necessary we'll kill them in the toilet."

Speculation about staged Chechnya war

On October 1, 1999, he sends Russia's army to the Caucasus: the second Chechnya war begins (Moscow's troops fought there between 1994 and 1996). President Yeltsin, the actual military commander in chief, gives his crown prince a free hand.

He had to be consistent, Putin will later justify the campaign, otherwise Russia would “have been drawn into an endless series of local wars and we would have got a second Yugoslavia”. If less than two percent of Russians imagine Putin as president when he takes office, after the pithy television appearances and the start of the war it will soon be 14 percent.(The connection is so clear that some observers even suspect that the FSB itself planted the bombs in Moscow; however, there is no evidence.)

Yeltsin hands over his presidency to Putin

Yeltsin and his confidante see the moment come to enforce Putin as the new president. They are founding a party called "Unity" to be Putin's tool in parliament to get legislation through. Supported by Berezovsky's media empire, it immediately won 23 percent in the December 1999 elections (in 2001 it will be absorbed into the “United Russia” party).

On New Year's Eve 1999, Boris Yeltsin resigns as Russian President and, as the constitution provides in this case, hands over his office to Vladimir Putin on a provisional basis. Until the now scheduled presidential elections in March 2000, the newcomer will have a few months to collect additional plus points from the people as head of government.

Fight for the favor of the 147 million Russians

As a first act, Putin signs a decree guaranteeing Yeltsin immunity from prosecution (as well as providing him and his family with residences, pensions and staff at state expense).

The ex-secret agent has reached the top. Now all he has to do is get the majority of the 147 million Russians to elect him as president. He lets himself be portrayed as a tough man, flies in fighter jets, spends the night on a nuclear submarine, distributes daggers to his soldiers in Chechnya.

They have now almost completely taken over the republic, but they cannot pacify it. The conflict continues to smolder as guerrilla warfare. Critical journalists speak of state terror, but the majority of Russians support the operation. This is also due to the positive reporting on the TV channels controlled by the oligarchs.

Possible competitors of Putin in the fight for the presidency - for example Moscow's mayor Yuriy Luzhkov or the former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov - are harmed by bought journalists with partly absurd accusations. A news anchor personally instructed by Berezovsky announced that Luzhkov had commissioned a murder and that Primakov was jointly responsible for a (failed) assassination attempt on the Georgian president. Exasperated, both do not even run for election.

And so, on March 26, 2000, Vladimir Putin was elected president with 53 percent of the vote. 53 percent of the vote elected president.

Russia: run down and impoverished

His backers believe they have reached their goal. An analysis by a Russian financial company states: “For the past ten years, Putin has primarily implemented the orders of others. He has no experience of political decision-making and is overwhelmed by Yeltsin's generosity. He has a subaltern mentality and feels dependent on Berezovsky's environment. ”A wrong assessment, as will soon become apparent.

Putin is taking over a run-down country whose national product has fallen by 50 percent in the previous eight years, which can barely pay out pensions and civil servants' salaries, which abroad owes around 160 billion dollars and in which one in four lives below the poverty line. Radical changes are needed.

New rules for oligarchs

Putin gets to work immediately. And first of all, he shows that new rules apply - even for billionaires. Four days after his inauguration, 50 police officers with submachine guns storm the headquarters of a media group that belongs to the empire of the entrepreneur Vladimir Gusinsky. The magnate comes into custody for alleged fraud.

In July, Putin invited a good two dozen oligarchs to the Kremlin and told them that the days of backroom deals were over. And: from now on, taxes will be paid.

Boris Berezovsky (who does not attend the meeting himself) is stunned. He told a parliamentarian that he made Putin great in the first place.

But the president creates his own power base. It helps that hundreds of thousands of former secret service agents, police officers and officers who have lost their jobs are now working in administration or local politics - and think like him about the decline of their state.

Members of parliament are bought

Putin is increasingly surrounding himself with former spies and the military. In the Kremlin, he replaces representatives of the Yeltsin clique with a small circle of closest confidants whom he knows from before. In the Ministry of Finance he has a department for large corporations set up and for the first time ever sends tax auditors to their headquarters.

In order to change laws, such as tightening the mild penalties against tax evasion, he relies on his party and changing majorities in parliament. If necessary, MPs are bought.

Russian economy recovers under Putin

He is curtailing the rights of regional parliaments, shifting powers to the Kremlin (in 2004, with the approval of parliament, he will even pass a law that will entitle him to personally appoint the governors of the provinces from now on). He weakens the opposition and lets the public prosecutor's office investigate environmental activists for alleged betrayal of secrets. He is pushing stubborn oligarchs abroad and nationalizing parts of their corporations because of real or alleged tax debts. Boris Berezovsky also had to cede branches of his empire and moved to London.

Most Russians can now see that their state is working to some extent, that the economy is finally recovering. The consistent tax collection allows the Kremlin to lower income tax in order to attract foreign companies and investors. In addition, rising gas and oil prices are generating enormous income for the major exporter Russia. The real wages of Russians will increase by around 23 percent in 2000 alone.

Russia's new stability

The fact that the corruption is by no means ending under Vladimir Putin is not mentioned by the increasingly aligned press. And what about the rumors that are soon to emerge that the president is stashing billions abroad? There is no evidence - and most Russians don't care, even if very few believe in the official version, according to which Putin is content with the monthly salary of the equivalent of 2,000 euros. In December 2001, almost three quarters of the people were satisfied with the way he was in office.

The ruling politicians in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin also look to their new colleagues with benevolence. Russia's new stability is more important to them than Putin's rigid domestic policy. Moscow has started to pay off foreign debts, raw material exports are increasing, and a new gas pipeline to Europe is being planned.

In addition, Vladimir Putin is open to cooperation: After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he opened the Russian airspace for retaliatory strikes by the US AirForce in Afghanistan and agreed to the construction of US military bases in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

In Europe, Putin is primarily vying for Germany's favor. On September 25, 2001 he will be at the lectern of the Bundestag. It is the first time that a Russian head of state speaks in front of the German parliament. Putin began in Russian, but soon switched to German, the "language of Goethe, Schiller, Kant," as he emphasizes. In a soft voice he praises the “unity of European culture” to which Germans and Russians have contributed so much.

“Today,” he says a little louder, “we have to declare definitely and definitively: The Cold War is over.” Russia is ready for a “real partnership” with the West, and he can assure one thing: a “main goal of Russian domestic policy is the guarantee of democratic rights and freedom ”.

At the end of the speech, the MPs rise to a standing ovation.