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Chechnya: Expert Sees Politics Behind U.S. Terrorist Designation Of Basayev

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The U.S. State Department has designated Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev as a terrorist threat to America. The move forces the Treasury Department to freeze any U.S. assets that may belong to Basayev, who claimed to be behind last year's seizure of a Moscow theater that ended in the death of 129 hostages. But why has Washington chosen to take action against Basayev now?

Washington, 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a notice in the U.S. "Federal Register" -- the daily U.S. publication of government notices and other information -- on 8 August, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev "has committed, or poses a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism" against American interests.

In a separate statement, the State Department says that because of Basayev's links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, the United States, Britain, and Russia had asked the UN to impose travel restrictions on him in all UN member states and to block shipments of arms and financial aid to his rebels by UN members.

The statement says Basayev claimed responsibility for the seizure last October of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater. The siege resulted in the deaths of 129 hostages, including one U.S. citizen -- most died from the effects of a sedative gas used by Russian special forces before storming the theater.

Basayev also claimed to have personally detonated the explosive devices on suicide bombers who destroyed a Chechen administration complex in Grozny last December, killing 78 people.

The State Department statement also cites other acts of terrorism attributed to Basayev, including a truck bomb that killed 60 people last May at a government compound in the town of Znamenskoye.

It also says that last November Basayev had warned governments belonging to international organizations with offices in Russia they would also be targets.

The Treasury Department says it will move to freeze any U.S.-held assets belonging to Basayev. It is unclear whether the rebel leader possesses any such assets.

Analysts say the designation of Basayev as a terrorist underscores a growing like-mindedness between Moscow and Washington on the nature of the threat posed by some Chechen rebels.

The United States and Russia have been close allies in the U.S.-led international war on terror since the 11 September 2001 attacks on America, which killed some 3,000 people.

But why has Washington chosen this particular moment to move against Basayev? RFE/RL put that question to Christopher Swift, who is considered an expert on U.S. policy on Chechnya. Swift has in the past served as an aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for former President Jimmy Carter. He is now program director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, an independent, bipartisan Washington advocacy group.

RFE/RL: "In your opinion, why has the U.S. chosen to move now against Basayev? After all, Basayev's activities have been well noted for a long time. Last February, for example, Washington designated as a terrorist organization Basayev's group, the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs."

Swift: "Objectively, no one can dispute the fact that Shamil Basayev is a terrorist, that he has used violent force against civilian targets for political ends for the purpose of intimidation. And from an objective standpoint, [the U.S. move to label him a terrorist] is an appropriate designation.

"The timing of this designation probably has more to do with the forthcoming Bush-Putin summit in the UN and Putin's address before the UN General Assembly than it does with any factual or objective criteria that the U.S. State Department may be using. It's probably politically timed. But I can't say for certain one way or another. And all of the negotiations between the White House and the State Department and their counterparts in the Russian Federation regarding what's going to be on the agenda of that summit are currently under way." (No official announcement of a U.S.-Russia summit has been given at this point. The UN General Assembly session opens on 16 September.)

RFE/RL: "Does this designation suggest that the U.S. government may be seeking to curry favor with Russia -- to accommodate Moscow's position on the war in Chechnya -- in order to win Russian support on some future issue of importance to Washington?"

Swift: "A certain degree of accommodation is to be expected. There is a U.S.-Russia partnership. Russia and the U.S. have some consistent and some joint interests in the war on terror. I think the important thing to note here is that at no point has the United States government said that any of the other individuals who are leading the resistance in Chechnya are without question terrorists and should be designated and treated as such.

"It's worth knowing that the U.S. government continues to draw a very clear distinction [between] what it says and doesn't say about Shamil Basayev and the small group of politically marginal radical individuals that follow him, and the mainstream Chechen resistance led by President Aslan Maskhadov.

"The fact that Maskhadov is not on this designation shows that the U.S. government, while it has interests and must maintain its relationship with the Russian Federation, is not willing to close the door on negotiations with Maskhadov or any one of his deputies quite yet. They're not willing to cross over the line and call these folks in the Maskhadov government -- who have consistently and categorically denounced terrorism since the start of the war -- terrorists. They're not willing to use that label with this particular group yet. So, objectively, what the U.S. government has done is correct."

RFE/RL: "How do you interpret the U.S. position on Chechnya these days? Is Washington still seeking a negotiated political settlement, or has it settled on another formula to express its position?"

Swift: "It's hard to tell. I don't know if the U.S. government has a formula. I certainly think that different elements within the U.S. government think they have a formula. As to whether or not a decision [on an overall Chechnya policy] has been made at a very high political level, I don't see any evidence to suggest that. Six months ago there was a pretty strong indication from the U.S. State Department that they had officially abandoned the notion of negotiated settlement in favor of the referendum proposed by the Kremlin and the forthcoming Chechen presidential elections currently scheduled for October 5.

"In recent months, Russia has put an artillery battalion back into Chechnya; they sent a Marine battalion to Chechnya; they've increased the number of troops rather than decreasing them; the number of 'blokposti' or checkpoints in Grozny has gone way up again. I think in light of the objective facts on the ground, significant elements in the U.S. government are now much more critical and skeptical about the Kremlin's proposition than they were six months ago. And I think that skepticism is healthy, I think it's appropriate. I don't know yet whether the U.S. government has decided that it's going to wholly endorse the Kremlin plan or wholly endorse the notion of a negotiated settlement."

RFE/RL: "Chechnya appears to be a low priority for the U.S. at the moment, and yet all of a sudden we have this move against Basayev."

Swift: "I think Chechnya's always been used by both this administration and the prior administration as both a carrot and a stick. When we have another priority in U.S.-Russian relations, be it the war on terror, or even Russian poultry exports -- when we have a dispute with the Russian Federation, the tendency has been for the U.S. government both in the [former President Bill] Clinton administration and the Bush administration to start talking about 'systematic human rights violations' in Chechnya.

"When we have sort of a rapprochement with the Russian Federation, when there's much more engagement, there's much more of a willingness to accept the Kremlin's interpretations, or at least the Kremlin's rhetoric, regarding the war -- or not necessarily to accept it, but to be much less critical of it."

RFE/RL: "In your view, what if anything is missing from the State Department's statement on Basayev?"

Swift: "The thing we have to remember is that the U.S. definition of terrorism is the use of violent force against civilian noncombatants for the purpose of either political ends or political intimidation. There's no doubt that under that definition, Shamil Basayev is and should be considered a terrorist, both by the Russian Federation and by the United States.

"But the flip side of this is, having made this designation, we also have to take a look at what the Russians are doing in Chechnya. And there is no doubt there is an extremely long and detailed record of actions by Russian soldiers, whether under federal control or not under federal control, that rise to the same level [as what Basayev has done]. Russian soldiers aren't using suicide bombers to achieve their ends, but they are using these cleansing operations, these 'zachistki,' where men are beaten, women are raped, houses are looted, and children and teenagers are taken away never to be seen again as a form of political intimidation. The use of violent force for political intimidation is terrorism, regardless of who commits it or for what purposes. "And if the United States wants to be consistent, it also has to note the things that the Russian soldiers are doing under the color of law, under the color of fighting terrorism, to Chechen civilian noncombatants."