Issue 268 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review





The theatre of war

The bleak land that is Chechnya, thanks to the Russian military
The bleak land that is Chechnya, thanks to the Russian military

The brutal storming of a Moscow theatre by Russian forces last month led to the deaths of 117 hostages and all 50 hostage takers. At least 113 of the hostages were killed, not by gunshot wounds, but by the deadly poison gas the Russian forces pumped into the theatre. The symptoms of the survivors led scientists such as Professor Steven Rose to conclude that the gas used was a variant of the nerve gas BZ developed by the US military in the 1970s. Some have since argued that the gas may have been a derivative of heroin. Whatever it was, the Russian authorities refused to disclose what gas was used, even to the doctors treating the victims, citing reasons of national security. There is a parallel here with the way that President Putin handled the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine. Then, he refused offers from foreign ships which were close to where the Kursk had exploded that had equipment that might have been able to save the lives of some of the sailors. In both cases, Russian military pride and secrecy were judged more important than the lives of its sailors or civilians.

We were told that the end of the Cold War would bring a new period of peace and reduced military spending. Instead we have had a series of wars, moving from the Gulf to Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and now probably to Iraq. The 'war on terror' that George W Bush declared following 11 September is just the latest intensification of this period of world instability. After the deaths in Moscow and also in Bali, it seems that the 'war on terror' will be fought also in capital cities both east and west, and that going to a nightclub or theatre can be a deadly activity.

The use of poison gas in Moscow points to another aspect of the hypocrisy of the world's rulers. Although Blair and Bush talk of Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction', the vast bulk of chemical and nerve agents are held by the US and Russia. The US remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in wartime, against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We can imagine the outcry there would have been if Saddam Hussein had used nerve gas to storm a siege inside Iraq. Yet after last month's events in Moscow, Tony Blair was one of the first world leaders to telephone Putin and congratulate him on the ending of the siege. The US and Britain need Russian support on the UN Security Council for any resolution allowing them to go to war against Iraq. This contrasts with the feelings of many Russians, traumatised by the number of deaths caused by their own side in the Moscow theatre.

When Putin ordered the storming of the theatre, he knew he would face questions about the way the operation was carried out. But he hoped that the question of Russia's brutal war in Chechnya would stay off the news agenda. In fact, disregard for loss of life runs through the history of Russia's policy on Chechnya.

The Chechens' history of brutal national oppression and desire for independence are important to understanding what would drive someone to take a theatre full of people hostage. In February 1944, Stalin had deported the whole of the Chechen population--some half a million people--in freight trains to Central Asia, on the pretext that there had been collaboration with the invading Nazi armies. One quarter of the Chechens died either in transit or from hunger and cold within the first 5 years. Chechen gravestones were used to pave the streets of the towns now repopulated by ethnic Russians. After Stalin's death, the Chechens were allowed to return, but even today older Chechens have direct experience of these atrocities.

Given this history, it is not surprising that when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Chechnya seized the chance to declare its independence. But Yeltsin, and his successor Putin, would not entertain the idea that a part of the Russian Federation could choose to secede--under the old Soviet constitution Chechnya had been a republic within Russia's borders. Add to this the country's strategic position in relation to pipeline routes for Caspian Sea oil reserves, and the desire of local people for self determination has carried no weight in Moscow.

In both 1994 and 1999 Russia invaded Chechnya, each time inflicting massive civilian casualties. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people (the bulk of them civilians) were killed in the first invasion, which ended in failure in 1996. The total Chechen population of the time was under 1 million. Ethnic Russian inhabitants of the Chechen capital of Grozny were bombed alongside their Chechen neighbours. Official Russian government statements still refuse to use the word 'war' to describe this, referring instead to 'an anti-terrorist operation'. Even though this war is not officially going on, the deaths continue.


  • A Blairite Institute for Public Policy Research survey for the Institute of Directors (IOD) found that six out of ten company boards never discussed social or environmental issues--and eight out of ten don't publish reports on their social or environmental impact. Overcome with rage at this report, IOD head of policy Ruth Lea said, 'This is our survey. We paid for it. These things cost about £15,000 to £20,000' and refused the think-tank permission to publish the report.

  • The London Eye is in crisis due to the debts owed to the cash-strapped airline British Airways, its main backer. BA has loan agreements with the Eye which total £87.7 million. The airline charges a massive 24 percent interest which means the chances of the Eye ever turning a profit are slim. Catch a ride on the Eye before it closes for good.

  • Lost computers
  • It seems that the US Justice Department has become a little absent-minded. An audit found that the department, which is in charge of the FBI, 'lost' 400 computers and 200 weapons

  • At the time of the invasions of Chechnya, western politicians made formal complaints about human rights abuses and the indiscriminate bombing of cities. But since the attacks of 11 September, western policy has changed and even these formal protests have been dropped. In return for Putin's support for the 'war on terror', he has been given free reign. The fact that Chechnya is a Muslim country and that Islamist ideas have spread among the population made this shift in western policy even easier.

    The Chechen tactic of attacks on Russian cities flows out of the conduct of Russia's war. Just as in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, the Russian assault started with a prolonged aerial bombardment. As they watched their cities being razed to the ground, the Chechen fighters saw that Russia had an overwhelming conventional military advantage. One response was to strike back inside Russia's borders and also to target civilians. In June 1995, during the first Russian invasion, Chechen guerrillas captured a hospital in the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, taking 1,200 hostages. Four days later Russian special forces attempted to storm the hospital, killing nearly 70 hostages. But the Chechens fought back and the Russian troops were unable to capture the hospital. The botched Russian operation was a public relations disaster for Yeltsin's administration which decided to make a humiliating climb down. A ceasefire was declared in Chechnya and the Chechens who had taken the hospital released their hostages and were given safe passage out of Russia.

    During the siege of the Moscow theatre, there were small but significant demonstrations in Moscow calling for independence for Chechnya. Putin's response was a ban on protests. During earlier phases of the war, mothers of Russian conscript soldiers have been at the forefront in demanding a Russian withdrawal.

    This time round Putin's government, bolstered by western support for its war in Chechnya, dismissed out of hand the idea of a ceasefire and negotiations. But until Russia grants this demand, last month's events in Moscow are unlikely to be the final chapter in this tragic history.
    Nicolai Gentchev


    Larger than life

    The Irish 'no' campaign shocked the establishment
    The Irish 'no' campaign shocked the establishment

    The froth surrounding the potential 'rebranding' of the European Union should not distract from the real economic and political issues being hammered out behind closed doors. The proposed expansion of the union--adding ten member states to the current 15--has been couched in the idealist language of uniting east and west Europe. What lies behind it is a harder-headed assessment of extending the influence of European capital on the world market.

    The planned addition of the ten central and eastern European nations is not primarily based on their economic weight--their total gross domestic product (GDP) is similar to that of the Netherlands. Rather it signals an assertion of a sphere of influence which cuts across that of Russia's historic designs. It would place the EU in an improved geo-political position as an imperial challenger to the militarily dominant but economically comparable US.

    The biggest barrier to this is the competing interests of its national ruling classes. The dispute between Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac over the Common Agricultural Policy is a recent example of this. Behind the celebrations of the Irish ratification of the Nice Treaty (the first referendum not having given the required rubber-stamp) comes a heightened jockeying for position--each government aiming to shape the agenda around their businesses' needs. Hence Chirac's defence of massive agricultural subsidies which benefit France and Blair's attempts to heighten divisions in the traditional France/Germany axis of power.

    The draft EU constitution of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the President of the European Convention, is an attempt to square this circle. But a more pressing concern for EU enthusiasts is the viability of the monetarist 'growth and stability pact' as the world heads into recession. The pact, which imposes a public spending cap by demanding states cut deficits to less than 3 percent of GDP, is in immediate danger of being broken by Germany and Portugal--the latter facing massive unrest as it squeezes the wages of public sector workers. European Commission president Romano Prodi has admitted that its rules are 'stupid' for their rigidity--but uses this to argue that his unelected Commission should have more power to police and enforce the same neoliberal principles. In this context the Socialist Alliance's decision to work with wider forces in the European labour movement to oppose this project of capital and war is very timely.
    Andrew Stone


    Pretty bubbles everywhere

    Paul Foot on the campaign trail in the recent Hackney election
    Paul Foot on the campaign trail in the recent Hackney election

    We're all still bubbling with excitement in Hackney Socialist Alliance after the Foot for Mayor campaign, despite our collective exhaustion.

    Why are we excited? After all, in the three other mayoral elections in October, Labour was beaten, while in Hackney the leader of the Labour council--which has one of the worst records nationally of privatisations, corruption, racism, cuts to services and sell-offs--won the election easily.

    The truth is that our campaign had a huge impact--on Labour's vote, on pushing Labour and the Greens to the left (exacerbating tensions in both), on local struggles and on many individuals. By coming third, just ahead of the Lib Dems and substantially ahead of the Greens, we have also begun to establish the Socialist Alliance (SA) as the main opposition to the Tory-Labour policies that have dominated the council for many years.

    The average Labour vote across Hackney in the past two general elections was 62 percent. Of the three main parties, only the Labour Party's percentage vote fell significantly in the mayoral elections--by a whacking 20 percent. Of the alternative parties, only the SA's share of the vote rose significantly--from 4.6 to 12.7 percent. Combined with the low turnout (25 percent), the results mean that around 23,000 traditional Labour voters didn't bother to vote--or voted for Paul or other candidates to the left of Labour. This reflects the widespread disaffection with Labour and the enthusiasm for the SA that we came across during the campaign.

    The fact that Labour still won convincingly is not hard to explain. It takes a lot for traditional Labour voters in a working class borough like Hackney to turn their backs on the party that they and their parents and grandparents have always voted for, especially if there is a fear that a split 'left' vote might let in the Tories. Also, the two local MPs, Diane Abbot and Brian Sedgemore, are not Blairites and are relatively popular. Partly because of this, the local Labour machinery has survived and can still turn out a vote on the basis of canvassing lists that go back several elections. The SA simply doesn't have the machinery or history to do this yet.

    At the same time, many people in Hackney who are our natural base of support have stopped voting (because of disillusionment with 'politics'), do not vote (because as first generation immigrants they don't identify with or feel excluded from the whole process), or cannot vote (because they are transient or don't have voting rights).

    So we are excited by the results, in particular given that the SA is such a new organisation and that our campaign loudly and proudly promoted policies such as opposition to the war on Iraq, defence of asylum seekers, support for striking workers, and opposition to racism and police harassment. Clearly Paul's reputation added to our vote, but given that in May's local elections Paul polled substantially fewer votes than the Greens, it is clear that the SA is making political progress in Hackney. And who knows how many of the heavy-hearted Labour voters we met in this election will abandon ship next time round if Blair backs a war on Iraq, or treats the firefighters like the 'enemy within', or pushes through more disastrous privatisations of our services?

    General elections
    Hackney North Hackney South
    199752% turnout      199755% turnout
    Labour21,11065.2%      Labour20,04859.4%
    Tories5,48316.9%      Lib Dems5,05815%
    Lib Dems3,30610.2%      Tories4,49413.3%
    200149% turnout      200147.1% turnout
    Labour18,08161%      Labour19,47164.2%
    Tories4,43015%      Lib Dems4,42213.8%
    Lib Dems4,17014%      Tories4,18013.8%
    Greens2,1847.4%      SA1,4104.6%
    Soc Lab Party7562.5%         
    Mayoral elections 2002
    (Hackney North and South) 25.2% turnout
    Labour13,81341.95%      Lib Dems4,18512.71%
    Tories4,50213.67%      Greens3,0029.12%

    But the main thing we're excited about is the widespread and politicised anger we came across in Hackney against New Labour, against the warmongering and against capitalism in general--and that this anger in many key workplaces, some estates, much of the large Turkish-speaking community and virtually all local campaigns is increasingly expressing itself through support for the Socialist Alliance.

    During the campaign we organised informal gatherings of people to meet Paul--in living rooms, cafes and community centres. Every time people asked us serious questions about our policies and how we would achieve them. Many people told us stories of corruption, deprivation, injustice and resistance, sharing their expertise and indignation in the hope that we could use this to help right the wrongs. We also organised street stalls and a battle bus, and were active in every local campaign, whether to defend local services or to build opposition to war.


    At the heart of the campaign was the delivery through virtually every door of a general leaflet followed by a wonderful eight-page tabloid written by a number of people including Paul Foot, John Pilger, Mike Rosen, as well as local workers. Among our most enthusiastic leafleters were people who'd become politically active in the 1960s and 1970s (many reactivated by the campaign), and those whose only political party is the SA.

    In our post-election monthly members' meeting the success of the tabloid led to a debate about whether we should produce a regular newsletter. We all agreed on a post-election bulletin, containing a thank you message and election analysis by Paul Foot, as well as articles encouraging SA supporters to get involved with the local firefighters support groups as well as anti-war activities. The bulletins will be distributed through the ward structures and workplaces, with each known SA supporter being asked to hand out ten or so copies to people they know voted for Paul.

    There was slightly less consensus on how regular such bulletins should be. It seems that some SA members want a regular newspaper as a step towards turning the alliance into a party. In my view, Hackney SA simply doesn't have the resources to produce a monthly newspaper without serious costs to other activities. We should have a newsletter as and when we need one and can produce one.

    I believe it would also be a mistake if the SA tried to become a party now. In many ways the SA already acts like a party, so why spend months if not years in internalised debates about what kind of party we want to be, especially so soon after the SA's formation and in such a volatile political period? Inevitably the debates would focus on what divides us rather than what unites us. This would hamper us from intervening effectively in the struggles of the day. It would also prevent us from offering a welcoming home to all those who want an active and left wing electoral alternative to New Labour, whether they have revolutionary, reformist, anarchist, pacifist or green backgrounds, or no political background at all.

    In Hackney SA we have such a home--and are looking forward to challenging Labour in two by-elections in November and to being part of the growing resistance to the pro-business, pro-Bush agenda of New Labour.
    Clare Fermont


    Don't be 'lite' on the bosses

    Lula gives the thumbs up
    Lula gives the thumbs up

    The landslide victory of the Workers Party (PT) candidate, Lula da Silva in the Brazilian president­ial election in October, was of historic signific­ance. The first Brazilian from a working class background to be elected to the post, the vote of 61.4 percent was also the first time a workers-based party has won national elections in Latin America since 1970.

    A former trade unionist, Lula played a leading role in metal workers' strikes which helped to bring down Brazil's military dictatorship in the late 1970s. Last month's result was a decisive rejection of the neoliberal politics of the outgoing President Cardosa, and his would-be successor Jose Serra. Seventy million of Brazil's 175 million population live below the poverty line and the IMF demands that the country services $348 billion of debt. This will only make things worse.

    Lula greeted his victory with a commitment to tackling unemployment, but this was combined with a promise to be 'fiscally responsible'. Lula now calls for Brazil's crippling debt to be renegotiated, not defaulted on. His promise to honour contracts signed by his predecessor is a retreat from the popular policy of renationalisation. 'Lula-Lite', as he is now known, is a long way from the party whose 1982 election slogan was 'Vote PT--the rest are bourgeois'.

    With its currency down 40 percent in value against the dollar this year Brazil is teetering towards recession. Predictably the IMF are waiting with an Argentina-style loan scheme. The question is, can a large and confident working class be made to pay the price? Joao Pedro Stedile of the Landless Workers Movement spoke for many when he warned that if Lula 'tries to deceive people by asking for patience, he will end up like De la Rua (the Argentinian president deposed by mass rioting)'.

    The hundreds of thousands who came onto the streets to celebrate Lula's success are part of a widespread movement to reject the ravages of the market. They have the power to keep up the pressure on Lula in the coming months. That is not a prospect the IMF will be relishing.


    Spam, spam, spam 

    Anyone who has ever used Hotmail--one of the most popular online e-mail systems--will have noticed that junkmail, or spam as it is called, is much worse on its service than any other.

    Hotmail (and it's parent, Microsoft) claims over 110 million users of its system worldwide--a massive potential market for anyone who has access to its e-mail address book and a computer system capable of sending mail en masse.

    A recent report in the Guardian at estimated that 11 million spam e-mails are sent daily worldwide--even if only a tiny fraction of these prove profitable, there's obviously lots of money to be made from unsolicited e-mails.

    However, Hotmail will have been stung by criticism of its registration procedure which allowed some spam companies to haul in users' addresses unless the user opted out of the scheme. When registering for Hotmail users have to make sure they click a box on the online form, or find themselves automatically added to an online directory.

    Hotmail's recent claim to 'aggresively fight spam and provide users with a world class e-mail experience' has provided amusment to those such as a writer of the online IT news site 'The Register' ( who in the past remarked that 'only a cynic would suggest that Microsoft's commercial relationship with a directory firm, judged more important than the needs of its Hotmail users prevented the company from making basic changes that might limit the amount of junk in people's inboxes'.

    It also remains to be seen whether recent attempts to regulate e-commerce through a European Union directive will make much difference.

    Either way, spam e-mail is expected to treble by 2005, and those who pay by the minute to download and read their e-mail will increasingly find themselves paying to receive unsolicited advertise­ments which offer the most dubious and unwelcome products and services.

    Finally, many thanks to the reader in Denmark who e-mailed this link If you log on you will find more details and information about last month's story on certain regimes (such as that in China) restricting their citizens' access to the internet. Remember to send me your own links and ideas.
    Martin Empson
    E-mail ideas, suggestions and comments to martinempson

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