MOSCOW — Before the tragedy of Beslan, Vladimir Putin lived in a vibrant young democracy. Voters gave a Kremlin-backed party an overwhelming mandate in parliamentary elections in December, and Mr. Putin was reelected president with 71 percent of the vote in March. Even the troubled province of Chechnya, which elected a Moscow-friendly president in August, was well on the road to democracy.
Such was the image of Russia that Putin was trying to project in the days before the Beslan hostage-taking. Unfortunately it has been no more than an illusion.
In his first term Putin successfully took over the electronic media and sidelined all forms of domestic opposition, from ambitious oligarchs to human rights groups. Under those conditions, winning elections was a foregone conclusion.
Beslan - the North Ossetian town where more than 330 people were killed in a school takeover by partisans of the Chechen separatist cause earlier this month - was the starkest reminder that all is not well in Putin's dressed-up democracy. Not only did it highlight the unresolved problem of Russia's break-away republic of Chechnya, but the vulnerability of a political and security system that heeds one man.
Sadly, Putin clings to old illusions. His inability to refocus his views harbors danger not only for Russia's fight against terrorism, but for maintaining the nation's integrity.
In his televised address after Beslan, Putin called on "organized and united civil society" to respond to the terrorist threat. It wasn't the first time that the president, who has marginalized nongovernmental organizations, appealed to civil society. Several days later, on Sept. 7, more than 100,000 people gathered in Moscow to demonstrate against terrorism. The rally, however, was a government-staged event. This wasn't Rome, where a day earlier tens of thousands of ordinary citizens had marched to remember the victims of Beslan. Nor was it Madrid, where demonstrators in March took to the streets of their own accord - not just to protest the terrorist attack on a commuter train, but the Spanish government's lies about it.
During the Beslan crisis, Russian authorities also prevaricated - and newspapers (not the state-controlled TV stations) have taken officialdom to task for it. As a chilling reminder of the limits of independent journalism, the editor of Izvestia, Raf Shakirov, was forced to resign last week, apparently because of the Kremlin's dissatisfaction with the paper's Beslan coverage. (The paper is owned, through a holding company, by a metals magnate loyal to the Kremlin.)
More dangerous than seeing a flourishing democracy where it doesn't exist is Putin's illusion that Russia is under attack by international terrorists. In his speech after the massacre, Putin didn't mention Chechnya a single time, even though it was clear that the trail from Beslan led back to the war-torn republic.
In the immediate aftermath of the Beslan massacre, many Western commentators were wrong to hammer at Moscow's failure to negotiate a political solution in Chechnya. To Russian ears, the criticism sounded like a justification for holding schoolchildren hostage.
Of course identifying the roots of terrorism isn't the same as sympathizing with terrorists; pinpointing reasons for terror is key to fighting it. But a wrong diagnosis - such as President Bush's linkage of the Sept. 11 attacks to Saddam Hussein - can have disastrous consequences. Last week the Russian military threatened preemptive strikes against terrorists anywhere in the world.
It is undisputed that Chechen rebels receive help from abroad. But the roots of terrorism in Russia - which in the space of two weeks claimed more than 400 lives in Beslan, on two downed airliners, and in a subway suicide bombing - clearly lie in the guerrilla war in Chechnya. Putin denies the link. Instead, in his speech he darkly implied that "some want to tear off a big chunk of our country. Others help them ... because they think that Russia, one of the world's greatest nuclear powers, is still a threat."
The incongruous cold war rhetoric betrays Putin's past as a KGB spy - and a mind-set that may prove to be the biggest limitation to forming a measured, coherent response to Russia's terrorist threat.
One can sympathize with Putin's desire to make Russia strong and prosperous. But his actions don't match his words of concern for multiparty democracy, civil society, or a stable Chechnya. KGB training emphasized subterfuge over transparency, caution over imagination. So far, Putin has played by those old rules, amassing vast presidential power. That a terrorist attack on the scale of Beslan is even possible shows how vulnerable Putin's so-called "power vertical" is. The idea that the former KGB agent can single-handedly hold together a vast, heterogeneous country may turn out to be the biggest illusion of them all.
• Lucian Kim is an editor and columnist at The Moscow Times, an English-language daily.