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Russia/U.S.: Chechnya May Dominate Talks

  • Lisa McAdams

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is in Washington for scheduled talks today with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, among others. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Lisa McAdams reports arms control is expected to feature high on the agenda, but Chechnya and human rights concerns are also bound to be raised.

Washington, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The talks between U.S. officials and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are expected to comprise the whole range of issues of Russian-American relations from the enhancement of international security, to human rights, to Russian-American economic ties.

But less than 24 hours before Ivanov was due for talks at the U.S. State Department, the 54-member United Nations Commission on Human Rights -- meeting in Geneva -- called for an independent investigation of alleged Russian human rights violations in Chechnya.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was characterized on Tuesday as being pleased with the vote, which her spokesman James Rubin said highlighted how isolated Russia was on the issue.

The vote raises the ante that Russia -- rather than the United States -- enters today's talks on the defensive and that perhaps Chechnya -- not arms control -- will dominate the day.

Rubin told reporters that Chechnya was an issue of "fundamental disagreement" between the U.S. and Russia, while at the same time acknowledging some beneficial strides:

"There have been some positive steps (by Russia) in terms of access by international organizations and setting up their own ombudsman and their own operation, but we want to take it to the next level, which will involve international standards."

Prior to the UN rights vote, Ivanov was seen as arriving in the U.S. from a position of power, following the Russian Duma's ratification of the START II Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The U.S. has yet to secure Senate approval of START II, and the gap has left U.S. officials on the defensive.

Monday, Albright faced some tough criticism at the United Nations in New York, where arms control advocates, senior UN officials, and diplomats from non-nuclear countries said Washington was blocking progress toward disarmament.

That same day in an article published in the New York Times, Ivanov took aim at the perceived weakness, saying the arms control issue was now resting firmly with the United States. In the opinion piece, titled "A Challenge From Russia," Ivanov reiterated Moscow's long-standing opposition to desired U.S. changes on missile defense, which Moscow says would undermine the anti-ballistic missile treaty, or ABM.

Heritage Foundation Research Fellow Baker Spring says that if Ivanov sticks to that position during this week's talks he will essentially be holding the entire arms control agenda "hostage" to Moscow's preferences:

"I believe if he (Ivanov) sticks to that position, ultimately he is jeopardizing what otherwise would be productive steps in terms of the ratification and entry into force of START II and the initiation or continuation of negotiations regarding START III."

U.S. and Russian negotiators began talks in Geneva, Switzerland earlier this week to assess prospects for launching negotiations on START III. But looming over the talks is the proposed national missile defense system, which U.S. officials say would offer protection against missile threats from rogue nations like Iraq or communist North Korea.

Moscow has said its deployment would unravel the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and efforts to reduce the two powers' offensive nuclear arsenals through START. Spring says that is essentially a Russian point of view, and a "non-issue." He told RFE/RL:

"We find it interesting that even the Duma cites the ABM treaty as a treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, now almost a decade after the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. If Russia had any way of defining the treaty in a way that Russia itself was considered the party it would have done so."

Thus, in Spring's view, the ABM treaty has long been defunct and should in no way be linked to ongoing or future arms control discussions.

It is but one part of the debate -- Chechnya included -- likely to be revisited when U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold Summit-level talks in Moscow June 4-5.

Clinton and Putin met at the White House Tuesday and discussed nuclear arms, the Chechen conflict and plans for the summit.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ivanov said Russia plans to remain engaged with the United States on several issues of bilateral concern.



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