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Russia: U.S. Expert Criticizes Putin's Chechnya Policy

The recent school siege in the southern Russian city of Beslan refocused the world's attention on the war in Chechnya. The hostage takers claimed to be acting in the name of an independent Chechnya. The deaths of more than 300 people in the siege has put pressure on Russian president Vladimir Putin to resolve the Chechen crisis. But there are widespread concerns that Putin's current hard-line policy will only make things worse. That's the opinion of U.S. expert S. Frederick Starr at the Washington campus of Johns Hopkins University, who recently spoke to RFE/RL.

Washington, 23 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Starr, the chairman of the school's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, is critical of Putin's stance that he will not negotiate with Chechnya's ousted separatist leadership.

In fact, Starr said, Russian officials have held talks with representatives of Chechnya's separatist leadership, and that those talks were more fruitful than expected.

The first round of discussions were held in August 2001 in Switzerland. According to Starr, the Russians attending this meeting included Yurii Shchekochikin of the Duma's national security committee.

Shchekochikin and the others were apparently so encouraged by the session that they agreed to hold a second meeting a year later in Liechtenstein.

Starr said that session included Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the Kremlin's representative helping to oversee the response to the Beslan school siege, and Rustam Kaliev, an adviser to the Duma's commission on Chechnya.

At this meeting, the participants drew the outlines of a peace plan that apparently would involve Maskhadov.

But, according to Starr, the negotiations ultimately went nowhere. Starr said Putin has even denied the existence of the first meeting.
"I think [Putin] would like now to 'buy' his way out of [Russia's problems in Chechnya] through [granting] assistance down there and development money." -- S. Frederick Starr

And now, Starr told RFE/RL, it appears that there will be no more meetings if Putin's Chechnya policy does not change. One of the reasons, Starr said, is simply Putin's downgrading of the Duma itself.

"They have no power," Starr said. "The parliament has been so reduced in power since then, it is not an independent body at this point. And having meetings with the Duma just accomplishes nothing today."

Of equally little influence are third party statesmen such as former leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Starr pointed out that Gorbachev recently called for meetings with Chechens. But such calls, he said, are ignored as Putin focuses on eliminating Maskhadov, not negotiating with him.

In the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, Starr said Putin now sees granting economic assistance as a way to paper over Chechnya's troubles. But he said this solves only half the problem -- and may not even accomplish that much.

"I think [Putin] would like now to 'buy' his way out of [Russia's problems in Chechnya] through [granting] assistance down there and development money. It is not clear that they can deliver development money without it being stolen, but even if they do, it won't do the job without resolving political legitimacy."

Starr said, under Putin's policy, Russians and Chechens can only expect more war, perhaps on an even wider scale.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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