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Russia: Chechen Official Urges World To Push For Peace

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A visit to Washington this week by a senior envoy of Chechnya's separatist leadership raised protests from Moscow but saw no major progress toward mapping out a resolution to the conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke with Chechnya's separatist Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, who mocked Moscow's purported "war on terrorism" in the breakaway republic and said he had no hope of the conflict ending soon.

Washington, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The foreign minister of Chechnya's separatist leadership has ended a trip to Washington with a plea to the international community to make a concerted push for peace in his republic.

Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister for Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, said Chechen separatists were ready and willing to start peace negotiations with Russian officials.

But he told RFE/RL in an interview on 31 January that the combination of international apathy and Russian obstinacy had left him with little hope that the violence that has ravaged his North Caucasus republic for over two years would end any time soon.

"The current analysis of the present situation doesn't leave us with even the slightest bit of optimism."

The trip by Akhmadov -- who met with U.S. State Department officials, Senate leaders, and human rights groups -- came amid a mild revival of international criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya and intensified contacts between separatist leaders and several Western governments.

Moscow reacted angrily last week to meetings between another Maskhadov envoy, Akhmed Zakaev, and representatives of the French and British governments. It then accused the U.S. of undermining the world fight against terrorism as well as its new friendship with Russia, after State Department officials held informal talks with Akhmadov at a Washington university.

U.S. rights activists and commentators, however, criticized the administration of President George W. Bush for not welcoming Akhmadov at a state venue, since another Chechen envoy was recently received at London's Foreign Ministry and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.

"The Washington Post" called it "skulking diplomacy," adopted out of fear of offending Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been welcomed by the U.S. as a partner in the international antiterrorism coalition. The newspaper said the Bush administration's decision to forgo an official meeting had sent the wrong message to human rights abusers around the world -- that the U.S. president can be intimidated. It added that the decision would only encourage other governments to defend rights abuses as campaigns against terrorism.

Akhmadov delivered a similar message. He says the U.S.-Russia antiterrorism alliance is fueling Moscow's sense of impunity in Chechnya. Since the September attacks on America, Moscow has emphasized that its engagement in Chechnya is also a war on terrorism, much like the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government, which views Chechnya as part of Russia, has rejected that comparison. And the State Department recently accused Moscow of violating human rights and using "overwhelming force against civilian targets" in Chechnya.

Akhmadov told RFE/RL he made several requests during his meetings with the U.S. officials, but said his main concern is that Washington continue to apply "constructive pressure" on Russia to enter peace talks to end the conflict.

Russian officials and Chechen separatists have so far come together only once, for a half-day meeting last November between Zakaev and Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev. Since then, however, there has been no sign that Moscow is willing to pursue a political solution to the conflict, despite repeated requests from the State Department.

Jesse Helms, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also urged Moscow to start peace talks after meeting with Akhmadov this week. Helms said neither side could win the conflict militarily.

Akhmadov said that only through sustained diplomatic pressure and the help of institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, could there be hope of bringing Russia to the negotiating table.

"It's obvious that our one-on-one discussions have led to absolutely no success and that it's vitally necessary for there to be some sort of observers at these negotiations. And only then will we be able to discuss the full spectrum of this conflict. It's the only way you can discuss the full spectrum of any conflict. And we have shown our willingness and openness -- we've tried to demonstrate that openness, that we're always willing to discuss these issues."

Akhmadov echoed remarks by observers that a major hurdle to overcome is the Russian military's economic interest in maintaining the status quo in Chechnya.

"It's absolutely true that the situation in Chechnya is actually a source of enrichment at all the various levels: everything from the sale of arms to the sale of hostages to the sale of bodies back to Chechen families, as well as kidnapping, looting, robbing cars on the roads. It allows everybody in the Russian military [located in Chechnya] to enrich themselves."

Vladimir Kalamanov, the Russian government's human rights envoy for Chechnya, said yesterday (31 January) that several criminal cases have been opened against Russian servicemen for alleged violations in conducting sweeps of the Chechen towns Argun, Tsotsin-Yurt and Bachi-Yurt earlier this month.

But Kalamanov said the sweeps -- during which towns are barricaded and residents held for hours as troops search for rebels -- must continue in order to keep a lid on crime in Chechnya.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to former president Jimmy Carter from 1977-1981, said this week that the West must genuinely seek to bring Russia into its fold. Speaking at a forum with Akhmadov, Brzezinski said that such a relationship, however, must be based on more than a security alliance, and that Russia has to accept Western values.

The Polish-born Brzezinski, who is now a leader of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, added.

"The war on Chechnya certainly is not helping the evolution of democracy. It is strengthening the worst remnants of the Soviet system -- the apparatus of suppression, the apparatus of coercion. It's not contributing to a healthy political evolution."

Brzezinski said a solution to the crisis would require a little imagination on both sides. He said comments late last year by Putin -- who said it was crucial that Chechnya not be a base for launching attacks on Russia -- suggested the Russian leader may be open to such a "creative" solution.

Brzezinski said he could envisage a deal whereby Russia had the right to control the republic's borders to guarantee security but gave Chechnya an "opportunity for some self-determination." He said such an agreement must avoid using words that would signal failure or success for either side, such as "absolute sovereignty" or "capitulation."

But Akhmadov said a final deal on Chechnya would be up to the Chechen people to decide.

"This barbaric policy of the Russian government toward the Chechen people has left not even the slightest illusion among the Chechen people as to the possibility of being able to live together."

While the prospect of sovereignty is dim, Akhmadov said at the very least the Chechen people have the right to live free of Russian tanks, artillery, and soldiers.

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