Is the United States easing its criticism of Moscow's military involvement in Chechnya? If so, is it in an exchange for Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to support America's war on international terrorism? The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush says the answer is no. Officials say the U.S. has been following a consistent policy.
Washington, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says it has made no deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to relax its criticism of Moscow's actions in Chechnya in exchange for his support of the U.S. campaign against international terrorism.
The issue was raised by reporters yesterday at a White House briefing after President George W. Bush's chief spokesman called on leaders of the breakaway republic to cut all ties to terrorists and praised Putin for offering to conduct a political dialogue with the Chechens.
Spokesman Ari Fleischer said it would be inaccurate to assume that the administration's position on Chechnya is a payback for Putin's stated cooperation with the United States against terrorism.
In a speech on 24 September, Putin said Russia was willing to open its airspace -- along with those of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia -- for a "humanitarian" U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.
Putin has also offered intelligence about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. In addition, Russia has offered to conduct search-and-rescue operations, if necessary.
In calling on Chechen leaders to sever all ties to terrorism, Fleischer said there is no question that there is an international terrorist presence in Chechnya that has links to Osama bin Laden, considered by the U.S. as the chief suspect in the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. Bin Laden is said to be hiding in Afghanistan.
Fleischer said: "Chechnya's leadership, like all responsible political leaders in the world, must immediately and unconditionally cut all contacts with international terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden and (the) Al-Qaeda organization. At the same time the United States has long said that the only solution in Chechnya is a political solution, a political process, to resolve the conflict there."
Russia has been fighting Chechen rebels seeking independence for the republic. Moscow has consistently linked the insurgency with Islamic militancy, portraying the rebels as "terrorists" trained and funded by terrorist organizations.
During a meeting with Islamic-American leaders, Bush was asked whether he has changed his mind about Chechnya. Bush said, "To the extent that there are terrorists in Chechnya, Arab terrorists, associated with the Al-Qaeda organization, I believe they ought to be brought to justice."
Bush stressed, however, that Russia's treatment of Chechens must take into consideration fundamental rights. He said:
"I do believe it's very important for President Putin to deal with the Chechnyan minority in his country with respect, respect of human rights, and respect of difference of opinion about religion, for example. And so I would hope that the Russian president, while dealing with the Al-Qaeda organization, also respects minority rights within his country."
In the past, the United States has frequently criticized Russia for its handling of the Chechen conflict, saying its military actions in the breakaway republic have been disproportionally harsh and that Moscow has disregarded the human rights of Chechens.
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. position has been consistent on Chechnya. Boucher said:
"We have been quite clear on the whole -- every aspect of our policy towards Chechnya. We've been quite clear in welcoming Russian recognition that there needed to be a dialogue or a political settlement. Quite clear also in condemning the terrorism that exists. But we have maintained quite clearly as well our concerns about human rights, our concerns about the need for accountability there."
Boucher said it is very important for the Chechens to end any ties they may have with outside terrorist groups.