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Chechnya: U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Discussion On Troubled Region

By Annie Bang The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on 17 June with two representatives of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers (CSM) of Russia in Washington to discuss the war in Chechnya and Russian civil society.

Washington, 21 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Valentina Melnikova says while some countries enjoy a healthy dialogue between political authorities and society, what Russia has is more of a monologue.

She says there is no political opposition or independent media to counterbalance Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration. The result, she adds, is a country that is increasingly less secure.
"The problem is that most of the Russian population, unfortunately, has no idea about what is going on in the army, because television is censored."

"Without democracy in Russia, there can be no safe Russia," Melnikova says.

Melnikova made her remarks last week in Washington, during a briefing by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency that monitors progress on human rights.

Melnikova heads the National Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia (CSM). The nongovernmental organization, founded in 1989, has gained wide recognition for publicizing and protesting human rights abuses in the Russian military.

CSM dedicates much of its work to educating young soldiers and their parents about their legal rights in a country still bound by compulsory military service and engaged in a seemingly intractable war in Chechnya.

CSM has accused the Kremlin of underreporting the number of Russian military casualties in its Chechen campaign.

Natalia Zhukova is the chairwoman of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in the city Nizhnii Novgorod, and also participated in last week's discussion. She says many Russians are uninformed about the toll of the war, now in its fifth year.

"The problem is that most of the Russian population, unfortunately, has no idea about what is going on in the army, because television is censored," Zhukova says.

Zhukova says that each year her organization helps about 700 Russian soldiers who desert their units because of beatings and other forms of mistreatment, including lack of proper medical assistance, extortion, and slave labor.

Members of the group also arrange legal help for servicemen and their families, consult on legislation affecting military and alternative service, and press for improved living conditions for soldiers.

Zhukova and Melnikova claim that the closed nature of the war in Chechnya has aggravated the situation. They say most Russians see only a distorted picture of the war, believing that it is an antiterrorist operation against foreign mercenaries and Al-Qaeda units.

"In reality, the Chechen problem has nothing to do with international terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism. There is no trace of stabilization in Chechnya and there are no attempts by the Russian authorities to strive for peaceful resolution," Melnikova says.

Melnikova blames the Putin administration for waging a propaganda campaign in an effort to justify the war. She also criticizes Western governments and media for failing to call the Kremlin to account for its actions in Chechnya.

"Our organization demands, first of all, that the government stops lying to the Russian nation and the whole world; and secondly, that they enter into multilateral political negotiations -- without any preconditions -- with nongovernmental organizations, international bodies, and the warring factions. We're calling on the United States to support our position," Melnikova says.

Melnikova urged foreign leaders to put pressure on Putin to make what she called "at least some tentative steps toward peace."

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