The school siege in Beslan, in Russia's republic of North Ossetia, has escalated the conflict in the north Caucasus to a new level. Nearly 340 people, many of them children, died during the standoff between secessionist guerrillas and Russian security forces. A message recently posted on a pro-Chechen website seems to confirm what many believed: that the architect of the violence was Shamil Basaev, the most notorious of the dogs of war produced by the interminable Chechen conflict.

The school siege came in the aftermath of a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station and the downing of two Russian airliners, apparently by female terrorists. President Vladimir Putin has used these events to push through a fundamental reworking of Russia's constitutional structure: replacing the elected heads of the country's eighty-nine administrative regions with Kremlin appointees and changing the electoral system in a way that will virtually eliminate the dwindling democratic opposition. He is also considering an extension of his presidential term once it expires in 2008.

All of these events demonstrate the corrosive effect of Russia's unwinnable war against Chechen secessionism. Not only has the war brought terror to the heart of Moscow, but fighting it has now taken its toll on Russia's political system as well. Respected opposition commentators have even begun to use the f-word -- fascism -- to describe the blend of centralized control, personality cult, and Russian nationalism now being consolidated by the Putin leadership.

As never before, the Chechen conflict also threatens to spread to other parts of the north Caucasus. There has been serious violence outside Chechnya before, but the scale and audacity of the Beslan siege rocked an already volatile region, where interethnic tensions have always been high. In North Ossetia, ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Ingush, who already came to blows in the early 1990s, are now once again at odds. There are also signs of rising tension in neighboring republics: places such as Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Dagestan. In a context of economic stagnation, widespread corruption, and communal discontent, a few armed men (or women) is all it takes to turn dissatisfaction into open discord. And with unresolved territorial disputes in the south Caucasus as well, the expansion of violence in the north could be the beginning of the real nightmare scenario: the eruption of multiple armed conflicts involving not only the region's many ethnic groups but also its four sovereign states -- Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Western governments are in a particularly weak position in their attempts to influence events. As Putin has pointed out, the power of the United States federal government expanded considerably in the face of terrorist attacks on American soil, and US-led coalitions arrogated to themselves the right to invade foreign countries in order to deal with terrorist threats. To American politicians, these parallels might seem shaky, but they are increasingly clear to Russia's own citizens and to their still very popular president. Russia's neighbors -- especially Georgia, which Moscow has previously accused of harboring terrorists, including Basaev -- should have something to fear from this logic.

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