Beslan Mothers an Island of Opposition

BESLAN, North Ossetia -- Beslan mothers have put up street signs that read "Putin's Course" and point the way to School No. 1, where more than 330 people died in a terrorist attack three years ago.

The mothers will not vote for United Russia on Sunday.

"The president not only refused to negotiate with the terrorists to save our children, but he also failed to carry out a fair investigation," said Susanna Dudiyeva, whose 14-year-old son, Zaur, died in the attack. "This is why we won't vote for Putin on Sunday."

United Russia, whose top candidate is President Vladimir Putin, has said that a vote for the party is a vote for the continuation of Putin's course.

The mothers' opposition to Putin, however, is not shared by many in the region, including people who also lost loved ones in the attack. Some said they would vote for United Russia for fear of losing their jobs or getting poor grades, while others said they did not want to risk a Kremlin that might set a new, less certain course.

Dudiyeva and other mothers said they were only too familiar with Putin's path.

"We met the president two years ago, and we naively thought that he was misinformed about what had really happened in Beslan," said Rita Sidakova, who lost her daughter.

"We told him our version of the events, and he promised he would punish those responsible in a few days. But he didn't. He didn't keep his promise. He cheated us. How can we cast our ballots for a cheater?" Sidakova said.

The mothers contest the official version of what happened on Sept. 1, 2004, when a group of heavily armed Chechens stormed the school and took more than 1,000 people hostage. Authorities say 32 fighters seized the school and all but one died. The survivor, Nurpashi Kulayev, was sentenced to life in prison last year. Authorities also say special forces were not responsible for the gunbattle and explosions on the third day of the attack that killed most of the victims, including 186 children.

The mothers say there were at least 50 fighters and that special forces contributed to the high death toll by carrying out a poorly planned rescue operation. They want to know who was responsible for the operation.

Putin invited the mothers to the Kremlin after months of public criticism from their Beslan Mothers' Committee, a nongovernmental organization that Dudiyeva heads.

Sidakova, a member of the NGO, said Putin was referring to the group last week when he described his political opponents as "jackals" with foreign sponsors. A Kremlin spokesman has said Putin was referring to foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activities.

Beslan mothers plan to hold a demonstration Sunday to remind people about the attack. On Friday, they will hang anti-government banners outside the office of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, Sidakova said.

The mothers said they placed the "Putin's Course" signs along the streets last week as a reminder to voters.

"I won't vote for the party of the president," said Emilia Zarova, who lost her son. "Where was the party in September 2004, when our children were burning alive in the gym and the president said that he would not talk with the terrorists?"

Life remains at a standstill for many people in Beslan, a town of 30,000 people. The women cry as they speak about their dead children. Many say they cannot sleep at night. Fresh flowers fill the remains of the gym, and people go there to pray and remember the dead. In the small office of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, located a few steps from the school, grief therapy CDs are handed out to former hostages.

"It is impossible to forget. That day will always be in my mind," said Svetlana Tsgoyeva, whose granddaughter Zalina died.

United Russia has mounted an aggressive campaign across the country, and Beslan is no exception. Teachers, doctors and other state-paid workers have been told to vote for United Russia, said Murat Kaboyev, the Beslan reporter for Osetia: Svobodny Vzglyad, an independent regional newspaper that comes out three times a week.

"People are told that they have to vote for United Russia if they want to keep their jobs," Kaboyev said.

Farzun, a foreign-language student in Vladikavkaz, 20 kilometers from Beslan, said teachers had asked students to vote for United Russia. "I don't know whether I will vote for United Russia, but many students say they will because they are afraid that if they don't, they will have trouble with the teachers," he said.

People in other regions have told similar stories of facing pressure to vote for United Russia. The party denies wrongdoing.

While many Beslan residents expressed a dislike for United Russia, they said they would vote "for Putin" on Sunday because they fear a change of government.

"Putin's team has stolen so much and all of them are wealthy now, so maybe, if they stay, they'll do something for the people," said Aslan, a 35-year-old taxi driver whose girlfriend died in the attack.

"If we vote for a different political elite, the stealing will begin again," he said.

Grigory, a 65-year-old pensioner, agreed. "New politicians in power means new people who want to become billionaires," he said.

The Beslan mothers said they would vote for the Patriots of Russia party, whose candidates include Duma Deputy Yury Savelyev. They acknowledged that they knew little about the party but noted that Savelyev was the only Duma deputy who carried out an independent investigation into the attack.

Savelyev was a member of a federal commission that investigated the attack, and he released a report of his findings after other commission members refused to include them in their report. In his conclusions, Savelyev, an explosives expert, implicated special forces in many of the deaths.