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Russia: U.S. Fears Wider Threat In Chechen Conflict

The U.S. is expressing deep concerns about the continued Russian military action against the breakaway Chechen republic. A top administration official tells a Senate committee there are fears the conflict could spread beyond the borders of Russia and also disturb relations between Washington and Moscow.

Washington, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is raising growing concern that Russia's continued military crackdown on Chechnya could threaten Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia and adversely affect relations with the West.

The assessment was made yesterday (Thursday) by Stephen Sestanovich, special advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for the former Soviet republics. He made his comments in testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee examining the conflict in Chechnya and its implications for U.S.-Russian relations.

Sestanovich said the stability of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia could be undermined if violence spreads beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.

"We are particularly concerned that the violence in Chechnya could spread beyond Russia's borders and pose threats to the independence and security of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Deputy Secretary (of State) Strobe Talbott and I visited the South Caucasus last week, and we made clear at every stop that the U.S. supports these three countries during this time of turmoil in the region. Azerbaijan and Armenia have made progress in addressing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a way of further stabilizing the region. They've done so with support from us and the other OSCE Minsk Group countries including Russia. We need to do more. As for Georgia, the single largest element of our assistance program to that country has been to strengthen the Georgian government's ability to control its own borders, including with Chechnya."

Sestanovich said the U.S. is concerned about the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in the breakaway Chechen republic.

A United Nations mission evaluating the situation visited a key border crossing into Ingushetia yesterday (Thursday) as Russian soldiers were allowing busloads of Chechen civilians to pass through. Russia had kept the border closed for 11 days before permitting a few hundred Chechen refugees to escape the fighting.

"There cannot be a purely military solution to the conflict in Chechnya. A durable solution requires dialogue and the participation of regional leaders. Unfortunately, neither the Russian government nor the Chechen leaders have shown much interest in such a dialogue, and the military escalation that is under way obviously makes it very difficult to open talks."

He said the international implications of the Chechen fighting are also far reaching. Sestanovich said Russian troops and weapons in the area already exceed international obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty.

'The international implications of the conflict in Chechnya extend beyond the Caucasus region. To conduct their operations in Chechnya, Russian armed forces have deployed more weapons and military equipment in the North Caucasus than they would be allowed under an adapted CFE Treaty."

Sestanovich said the United States recognizes Russia's territorial integrity -- that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation despite its push for independence. But he said armed intervention is not the answer.

"The Russian government has an obligation to protect itself and its citizens from terrorist and other attacks. But this obligation does not and cannot justify indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the closing of borders to prevent civilians from fleeing, or other violations of human rights. How Russia resolves these issues -- how it counters this insurgency and how it treats its own people -- will determine what kind of country it will become and what kind of relationship we have with it. That will be Russia's challenge and ours."

Our correspondent reports that the most dramatic testimony to the Senate panel came from Russian human rights activist Elena Bonner.

Speaking in Russian through an English translator, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov said:

"Today, though it is very difficult and sad for me to state so because I am talking about my country and my people, both of whom I love, but I state that today we have not a democratic state but a criminal military state."

Bonner said the U.S. and its allies should not provide aid to Russia as long as the military onslaught continues against Chechnya. She said the only assistance should be humanitarian aid delivered directly to the people.

Bonner also said she just received a message from Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov in which he called for a political solution to the conflict. She said in his message Maskhadov also condemned all terrorist activities such as the bombing of Russian apartment buildings earlier this year in which 300 people were killed.

Russian authorities have sought to link Chechen extremists to the bombing incidents. The leaders of breakaway Chechnya maintain Grozny had nothing to do with the bombings.

Bonner said for the Russian army the Chechen conflict is attractive because it gives the generals an opportunity to take revenge for their defeat in the 1994-1996 war against the breakaway republic.

She accused Russian military leaders of trying to annihilate a large part of the Chechen nation and drive out those who survive. Bonner said their aim is to keep Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation -- but without the Chechens. She called this alleged practice "genocide ... and a crime against humanity."

Also testifying before the Senate panel was Paul Goble, RFE/RL's communications director and an expert on the region.

"Neither the Russian military campaign against Chechnya nor police actions against Chechens as a group, however, has broken the will of the Chechen people or lessened their resolve to live in an independent country of their own. If anything, the current Russian assaults against civilians in Chechnya itself and the portrayal of the Chechen nation as a whole as uniquely criminal or terrorist has only redoubled the resolve of the Chechens to escape from Russian domination."

In another development concerning Chechnya, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation said the administration of President Bill Clinton has, for the past few years, refrained from any serious criticism or challenge of the policies of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Congressman Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) said in a statement obtained by RFE/RL this was done because of "a fragile hope" that such policy would enhance the prospect that democracy and civil society would prevail in Russia.

Smith added, however, that the strains of democracy and civil society have been drowned out by the sound of tank treads.