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Caucasus/U.S.: Washington Backs Kremlin On Chechen Exile In America

  • Andrew Tully

In May, a judge in the United States granted political asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, who served as the foreign minister of the separatist government of Chechnya until the Russian invasion of 1999. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created after the 11 September attacks, has appealed that decision. Despite the fact that Akhmadov has been working for a negotiated settlement to the Chechen conflict, the DHS claims Akhmadov is a terrorist.

Washington, 2 July 2004 -- Akhmadov has many supporters in the United States, including current members of Congress and former secretaries of state.

But to the administration of President George W. Bush, the former opposition official is a terrorist and should be forced to leave the United States.

Bush's Department of Homeland Security has appealed a judge's decision to grant asylum to Akhmadov.

The appeal, at least indirectly, lends support to Russia's ongoing military campaign in Chechnya.
"At some point, Putin is not going to be in power, and the idea is, hopefully, under his rule, he puts in place the kinds of policies and reforms that whoever succeeds him continues."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long labeled the separatist government of Aslan Maskhadov as terrorist in nature. And the Bush administration appears to be backing that claim.

That sign of support may seem odd to some. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to support Bush's own war in Iraq.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the "The Washington Post" newspaper and has followed the Akhmadov case with interest. She says it is difficult to understand the Bush's administration's motive in seeking to force Akhmadov out of the country.

Applebaum tells RFE/RL there are three possible explanations why the United States would try to mark Akhmadov as a terrorist.

One, she says, is that no one in the Bush administration knows enough to differentiate him from "real" terrorists. But this, she says, is unlikely.

A second possibility, Applebaum says, is that the decision to go after Akhmadov was made as a result of low-level contacts between the United States and Russia. This, she says, is a bit more credible.

But most credible is a third possible explanation, she says. "The White House or the National Security Council have decided that as a favor to Putin, they will continue to show that they are trying to deport Akhmadov -- that they consider him a terrorist, that they are going along with Putin's interpretation, that they will continue to keep [Akhmadov] occupied with court cases as a favor to Putin, because that's what Putin wants them to do."

Applebaum says the Russian media are likely to see the DHS appeal as supporting Putin's Chechnya's policy. It appears to show that Washington considers the Chechen separatist movement as illegitimate, and Chechen separatists themselves to be terrorists.

"The Washington Post" columnist suggests the Bush administration has distanced itself from the Chechnya conflict, and may be acting on the Akhmadov case only in order to please Putin.

"I think [the Americans are] very disengaged in Chechnya. In effect, they don't have a policy anymore in Chechnya. This decision to appeal the Akhmadov case may reflect that disengagement, or, again, as I say, it could reflect the fact that they're deliberately disengaged because Putin doesn't want them involved," h court cases as a favor to Putin, because that's what Putin wants them to do," Applebaum said.

The question remains, however: Why would the Bush administration go out of its way to support the Russian president on Chechnya after Putin ignored Bush's early overtures of friendship and refused to support the United States' Iraq policy?

The answer is simple, according to Charles Pena, a defense analyst at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington: the atomic bombs left over from the Cold War arms race.

"Russia still has a very large strategic nuclear arsenal that we are working together to reduce -- both their [arsenal] and our [arsenal] -- and certainly it's not in the interest of the United States to jeopardize that process. As well as concerns of a resurgence of a harder-line and militaristic element politically within Russia. And certainly that would not be a welcome development after all the progress we've made in this post-Soviet era," Pena said.

Many observers have expressed concern about Putin's autocratic style of leadership. But Pena credits the Russian president with building a stronger economy and creating warmer ties with the West -- something that the United States and other Western countries should welcome.

"At some point, Putin is not going to be in power, and the idea is, hopefully, under his rule, he puts in place the kinds of policies and reforms that whoever succeeds him continues. And so you want to make sure that the country keeps moving in that direction," Pena said.

In the midst of this global balancing act, however, hangs the fate of Ilyas Akhmadov.