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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Places Popularity Over People

On Tuesday, Russians began gathering around the Dubrovka theater to mourn the fifth anniversary of the hostage tragedy that shook the world. On Friday, the day the theater was stormed by special forces, about 1,000 people gathered outside the theater complex, and 129 balloons were released for every hostage who died in the rescue operation.

I will remember this tragedy all of my life. I arrived at the theater on Oct. 24, after 42 armed Chechen militants took 800 people hostage. The first thought I had was to reach some kind of agreement with the terrorists to free the children, women and elderly hostages. I was prepared to give the hostage takers any possible personal guarantee.

Several hours before the theater was stormed by members of the Emergency Situations Ministry and the Vimpel and Alfa special forces, Alexander Voloshin, then-chief of staff under President Vladimir Putin, asked me for the phone number of Abu Bakar, a leader of the terrorist group in the theater. When I spoke with Bakar by telephone, he stated his conditions for freeing the hostages: All federal military personnel must leave Chechnya. I suggested to Bakar that for every day in Chechnya without violence, he should free 20 hostages.

I was in close contact with the Kremlin during these talks with Bakar because in these extreme situations, the country must be united around one person -- the president -- regardless of political differences. As it turned out, during the hostage crisis, Chechnya experienced one day without zachistka, the term used to describe indiscriminate violence against Chechens. As a result, the terrorists released several hostages.

The terrorists were willing to continue negotiations with me and with Mayor Yury Luzhkov, but Putin asked us not to speak any more with them. "In this tragic moment, I answer for the fate of our country and I ask you to listen to me," he said. We had an obligation to heed his wishes.

Soon after the rescue operation was executed, Voloshin explained to me the secret behind Putin's request. One of the main issues at stake was Putin's popularity. Voloshin told me openly, "If you or Luzhkov are the ones who save the hostages, you will turn into strong presidential candidates." It is horrifying to think that during this hostage crisis, the presidential administration was willing to place Putin's popularity rating above everything else. There should have been only one concern for all of the authorities -- how to save the hostages.

There was another tragic aspect of the hostage crisis. At daybreak on Oct. 26, 2002, special forces stormed the theater. The Union of Right Forces, the political party that I headed in the State Duma until December 2003, tried to create an independent parliamentary commission to investigate the rescue mission of the hostages. But pro-Kremlin deputies defeated our attempts to do this.

Despite the political pressure from the Kremlin and its allies in the Duma, the Union of Right Forces created its own private, nonparliamentary commission. We gathered testimony from the Emergency Situations Ministry, witnesses and journalists. We collected a tremendous amount of material, video and medical expertise. Doctors in particular were very willing to participate in our private investigation.

Based on our investigation, we learned that many hostages died from asphyxiation. The rescuers were grossly negligent in the way they treated the hostages who became unconscious from the gas pumped into the ventilation system by special forces. After the victims were carried out of the theater, they were placed on their backs. As a result, many suffocated when their tongues fell back into their throats. To make matters worse, victims were then loaded onto city buses -- instead of ambulances -- in a reckless manner; they were dumped into seats or on the floor of the buses.

Moreover, we do not know to this day the exact type of gas that was used in the rescue mission. The Kremlin still treats this as a state secret. Western and Russian toxicologists who examined the urine of several victims believe that the substance used by the special forces was an FSB-made version of carfentanyl, an opium-like derivative of fentanyl. Carfentanyl, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine, is so powerful that a drop of it can knock out an elephant. Excessive amounts of carfentanyl were pumped into the building to make sure that this substance made its way to all of the terrorists stationed throughout the theater. The worst aspect of this tragedy is that the doctors who attempted to treat the hostages were not informed by the authorities about the type of gas used. Thus, they had very little idea how to treat the victims properly or what antidote to use, and this ignorance led to many otherwise preventable deaths.

I approached Putin with the results of our investigation, and I told him that the people who were responsible for this negligence needed to be brought to justice and punished if found guilty. After thinking for a couple of minutes, Putin told me, "We can't return the lives of those who died in the rescue effort."

"We need to punish the wrongdoers for those who are still alive," I said, "so that, God forbid, if there is another incident like Dubrovka, the rescuers will have learned from the prior mistakes and will know how to save hostages in similar circumstances."

But Putin did not agree. He did not want to disturb the survivors and relatives of those who died. He was also concerned about negative publicity resulting from a public investigation that included our incriminating findings.

No city or federal government official has been charged with criminal negligence in the grossly mismanaged rescue operation, and an investigation by the Prosecutor General's Office was suspended within a year after it had been opened.

And what happened after the Kremlin refused to investigate the Dubrovka rescue mission? Beslan -- only two years later. In this hostage crisis, 334 civilians died, of which 186 were children. In both cases, the Kremlin's prevailing concern was upholding its distorted definition of a "great power" by killing the terrorists at any cost. Elementary measures to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths were slighted, if not outright ignored.

Since Sept. 11, there has not been a single global terrorist attack on U.S. territory. Why? Because the United States created an independent commission that thoroughly investigated the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and the entire system of airline and airport safety measures. After this investigation, U.S. authorities drew very important conclusions from the mistakes that they made.

Is the United States so much smarter than we are? I don't think so. But, because the United States is an open society with an independent press and legislative branch, it was able to determine who was right and who was wrong. Moreover, the United States was able to punish those who were criminally negligent. As a result, Americans live without terror. But in Russia, few lessons are ever learned from our gross mistakes. Instead, we only give Hero of Russia awards to victims -- posthumously.

How did terrorists, who were armed to their teeth, freely make their way from Chechnya to Moscow? No one within the Kremlin or Duma has bothered to answer this important question.

Ever since the Beslan tragedy traumatized our country three years ago, millions of Russians worry that the country will experience another terrorist attack when they send their children to school on Sept. 1. They have very little faith in the government's ability to provide security within the nation's borders.

Survivors and relatives of the victims of the Dubrovka tragedy have joined me in demanding that the federal and city government take responsibility for the gross negligence during the rescue of the hostages. But no one listens to us. After Dubrovka, I became very disappointed in Putin as a leader. In such a critical and tragic moment in our history, Putin thought above all about his ratings. I will never be able to understand this.

Boris Nemtsov is a member of the federal political committee of The Union of Right Forces.