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Analysis & Opinion
16.04.09 Taxing The Victim
By Shaun Walker

The North Ossetian town of Beslan is in the news again, and as usual, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. After all the trials and tribulations that the town has endured, this time it’s a strange and tasteless tax claim that is at stake. Meanwhile, demands for a full enquiry into the tragic events of September 2004 continue to be ignored.

After the deadly terrorist siege in 2004, charitable donations flooded into the town from across the world, and many of the children who survived the hostage crisis were given free places at rehabilitation centres, clinics and schools. Some of them were admitted to a college outside Moscow that was initially set up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the 1990s, and is still patronised by the former tycoon’s parents.

At the beginning of this month, these families received tax requests for the time their children had spent at the school. While the parents have not earned any money, according to a bizarre loophole in Russian law, in cases like this when something is received for free, the beneficiary is nevertheless required to pay tax on the value of what they received.

Ella Kesayeva, one of the leaders of the Voice of Beslan organization, is one of some 30 Beslan parents to have received the tax requests. In her case, it is for three years of tuition for her son at the school in Moscow between 2005 and 2007. She has been hit with a bill for a little over 70,000 rubles ($2,150). “For the Caucasus, it’s a large amount of money,” said Kesayeva by telephone from Beslan. “It’s very hard to find work here, and also for people here who suffered in the terrorist attack working is not easy anyway. We haven’t earned any money, but we are still being asked to pay this tax.”

It seems that the officials at the tax service were unable to use discretion and decide that in this case, a tax claim wasn’t appropriate. Some, however, have pointed to the history of the college and suggested that there might be darker motives at work. The college was set up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky for orphans and children who had suffered in terrorist attacks. Children who were in School Number 1 in Beslan during the siege were given free scholarships to study there, and some of the students are also survivors of the Nord Ost theatre drama. “With this they are killing two birds with one stone,” said Kesayeva. “They are putting pressure on the families of the victims, whom they find awkward, and at the same time targeting this college, which is irritating to the authorities.”

Even so, the tax demands seem ill-judged and designed to create bad publicity. The total amount of all the demands combined is 1.5 million rubles, a puny amount for the Russian state but a huge sum for families in Beslan. The mothers point out that the request is doubly insulting, given that by studying at the college, the children actually saved the state some money, because the state didn’t have to pay for their schooling.

The scandal has been receiving much play in Russian blogs over the past week, and the issue was even raised by Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov in his interview with President Dmitry Medvedev, published in the newspaper on Wednesday.

If the tax demands aren’t rescinded in the next week, the mothers will decide on a course of action. “We’re thinking about a street protest or even a hunger strike,” said Kesayeva. “Different people have different ideas, but personally, I think we should do something radical.”

Completely separately from the tax issue, many in Beslan are still determined to force an independent investigation into the events that led to the hostage taking and the subsequent storming of the school. They are certain that an official cover-up took place and demand to know the full story. On the first anniversary of the tragedy, Vladimir Putin invited some of the Beslan mothers to the Kremlin, and promised them that there would be a proper investigation. There never was. Indeed, the two organizations set up by the victims – Mothers of Beslan and the more radical Voice of Beslan, headed by the vocal Kesayeva – claim that they have been subject to pressure and searches from the local FSB, and even threatened with court cases and prison.

“The law on charitable activities certainly requires some improvement,” said Medvedev in his Novaya Gazeta interview. “The problem, as usual, is in the details. There are very clear cases involving charitable activities, where sick children or old people are helped out. And there are other more murky instances, where the temptation is there to use these channels for money aimed at commercial goals. We need to learn (with the help of the law) to separate money aimed at charitable work from money with commercial goals.”

All of this fell rather short of a concrete statement of action, or a promise to deal with the Beslan case immediately. In Beslan, the survivors of the siege have lost confidence in Medvedev, and if he really wants to show his liberal, humane credentials, then the North Ossetian town might be a good place to start. “We had a huge hope that things would change when Medvedev came to power, but everything has stayed exactly the same,” said Kesayeva.
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