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U.S.: Russia Says Chechen Conflict Aids 'Understanding' Of U.S. Tragedy

  • Francesca Mereu

As Russia joined the countries offering sympathy and support for the United States in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, Russian authorities are arguing that it was this same terrorist threat that led them back into war with Chechnya two years ago. Analysts, however, say the Kremlin may be using the U.S. attacks for its own political gain.

Moscow, 14 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 11 September, Russian news networks broadcast footage showing the shocking aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

That same day, Russian politicians were already drawing comparisons between the U.S. tragedy and their own troubles at home. Some argued that the threat of terrorist attacks like those in New York and Washington were what led them into their second war with Chechnya in 1999.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the presidential spokesman on Chechnya, called international terrorism the true enemy of all "civilized humanity," and said that Russia had been one of its first victims. The current campaign in Chechnya, he added, is just part of the overall struggle against international terrorism:

"I think that after what happened [in the United States] it has become clear why Russia has tried so seriously to eliminate the roots of terrorism on its own territory -- on the territory of the Chechen republic. I think there is a direct connection between [the terrorist assaults] that occurred in various Russian cities and what, to my great regret, took place in the United States today."

The 13th of September marked the two-year anniversary of one such so-called "terrorist assault" -- the bombing of a Moscow apartment block that left 124 people dead and came less than a week after another Moscow residential building was reduced to rubble by a homemade explosion.

The two incidents were the worst in a string of explosions and near-misses in various Russian cities that were widely believed to be the work of Chechen terrorists and which fueled public support for the return of Russian troops to Chechnya shortly afterward. None of the bombings has been solved, but a number of non-Russian Muslims have been named as top suspects in the incidents.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, discussing the U.S. attacks, said that because of the Chechen conflict, Russia understands terrorism and can empathize with the American people at their moment of tragedy.

Also on Tuesday, Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, said during a television interview that the attacks on the U.S. could change Western attitudes toward Russia's policy in the breakaway republic. The West until now has been cautiously critical of the Chechen conflict.

In a brief meeting with reporters outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said the United States has always recognized the threat of international terrorism as a factor in Russia's conflict with Chechnya. But, he said, Russia's approach to the problem is the wrong one:

"I think we still also have to say that the Russians' approach to solving the conflict [in Chechnya] is leading them down the wrong path. A military approach is only making a bad situation worse and we continue to emphasize our view that [Russia's] interests lie in finding a political way out of the Chechnya crisis."

Many Russian politicians -- including those who had earlier urged a more moderate stance on Chechnya -- have become distinctly hawkish since the U.S. attacks. Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Union of Right Forces -- who in past months has pressed for a political resolution to the conflict -- has now reversed his position, saying negotiations are no longer a realistic option.

In an interview with Moscow newspaper "Moskovsky Komsomolets" on 13 September, Nemtsov said: "The very term 'negotiations' should be dropped for the time being. All talks should be conducted in the language of Kalashnikov submachine guns only. We should concentrate on the destruction of the gangs, that is all. Either we kill the terrorists now, or they will get at the Kremlin one day."

Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst, says the Chechen war is likely to intensify in the wake of the U.S. attacks. He says Putin will use the events to justify his hard-line policy in Chechnya:

"[Things] in Chechnya will only get harder. As soon as Putin made his first statement [about the U.S. attacks] it became clear that he was using the current situation to justify yet again his cruel policy in Chechnya."

It remains to be seen how the West may alter its stance on Russia's Chechnya policy. A parliamentary delegation of the Council of Europe, led by Frank Judd, had been scheduled to visit the republic this week accompanied by a delegation from the State Duma.

The trip was canceled after this week's events, with Moscow ordering increased security around Chechnya and troops in the region put on high alert.

Instead, members of the European delegation met with their Russian counterparts in Moscow. Judd said yesterday he had held successful meetings in Moscow with Rogozin and other officials, including the head of the separatist Chechen administration, Stanislas Ilyasov, and the presidential representative to the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev. Judd urged the two sides to avoid the kind of actions that lead to terrorism.

In an interview today with the Interfax news agency, Judd said he believes many Russian politicians still support a political solution and that it is the duty of European officials to back this position. He also said the Chechen situation will be discussed in the parliamentary assembly session in Strasbourg later this month.

Aslambek Aslakhanov, the State Duma deputy representing Chechnya, told reporters yesterday that Russian officials are likely to use the U.S. tragedy to justify a tougher stance on Chechnya:

"I'm sure that [Russian authorities] will use [the terrorist attacks in the United States] to harden their policy toward the Chechens even if they know that they are not guilty [of the U.S. attacks]. I have no doubts that [authorities] are going to do many bad things [in Chechnya]."

There is concern that the events in the U.S. will spark an anti-Muslim backlash in Russia, which has become increasingly intolerant of Islamism in recent years. Rawil Gaynutdin, mufti of central Russia and imam of Moscow's main mosque, expressed his sympathy and concern in remarks Wednesday:

"On behalf of all Russian Muslims, I express my deep condolences to all American people. We, Russian Muslims, think that terror cannot be justified by any reason. The Koran says that if someone kills another human being, an innocent one, he is considered to be a person who killed all of humankind. Therefore, we declare again: It's impossible to justify terror and we strongly condemn terrorism."

Addressing the allegations that Islamic forces are behind the attacks, he added:

"This is not the right way. Nobody can say so far, who planned the tragedy in America, who actually conducted it. Islamophobia is spreading in our country as well. It's been going on for a long time now. Because of the war in Chechnya, heavy attacks on Islam and Muslims have been made. And they continue."

Sergei Kuzyin, Russia's military commander in Chechnya, was shown on state television saying that Chechen fighters saluted the U.S. attacks by firing shots into the air. But a Chechen website published a letter from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov expressing his condolences to the American people. The letter said: "You Americans are our only hope for the future and the only hope for peace in our blood-soaked land."

Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov said yesterday that Russian investigators have evidence linking Chechen rebels to international terrorist Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden has been named as a primary suspect in the U.S. attacks.

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