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Chechnya: U.S. Senate Subcommittee Examines Atrocities

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott reiterated the case for continued American engagement with Russia in testimony today before a Senate Subcommittee. But much like other U.S. administration officials of late, Talbott faced some tough questioning on current U.S. policy towards Russia, especially as regards Chechnya. RFE/RL's correspondent Lisa McAdams reports.

Washington, 5 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Senate foreign operations subcommittee held more than two hours of hearings on U.S. policy towards Russia, breakaway Chechnya, and on humanitarian aid programs there Tuesday. The bulk of the testimony came from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, a key architect of U.S.-Russian policy.

Talbott told subcommittee members that there are a lot of things going on across Russia that need and deserve U.S. support. At the same time, he said the U.S. must strive to encourage Russian authorities to change tactics in Chechnya.

Tuesday's hearing comes amid growing international pressure to take action against what western human rights organizations say are repeated human rights violations by Russian forces in Chechnya.

Talbott referred to the Russian actions in Chechnya as "outrages."

In opening the hearing, Senator Mitch McConnell -- a Republican from Kentucky -- quickly moved to state the case for clear U.S. action:

"It is not enough to say that we have been clear in our objections to the scorched-earth policy; we should act with clarity, principle, and purpose. If Russia rejects that agenda, it rejects the core freedoms and virtues which define democracies. I see no wisdom in shoring up dictators, even if you dress them up as democrats."

McConnell said the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton rather should actively press both bilaterally and multilaterally with newly-elected President Vladimir Putin's government to achieve three goals.

He said the first of these goals should be gaining immediate and unrestricted access for humanitarian relief workers, human rights investigators, and the media. Secondly, McConnell called for credible political negotiations followed by the third goal of supporting the independence of Russia's neighboring states.

McConnell also told Talbott that to hundreds of thousands of Chechens the United States must appear, as he put it, "to be chumps and not champions of democracy."

Senator Patrick Leahy, a democrat from the northeastern U.S. state of Vermont, expressed concern that the war in Chechnya is far from over, despite Russian claims to the contrary. He too then quickly moved to make a pointed appeal. This time the issue was centered around what constitutes a war crime.

"I think we ought to just call the atrocities what they are. These atrocities by Russian soldiers in Chechnya are war crimes; there is no other thing they can be called. And if the United States is unwilling to call them war crimes, then I think we damage our credibility."

Talbott declined to be swayed by Leahy's point of view, urging caution in word choice due to what he said were the implications for international, legal and diplomatic follow-up as a result. Thus, Talbott said he preferred to use words like "human rights abuses," "outrages" and "atrocities" to describe Russian actions in Chechnya.

All parties were in agreement that Chechen forces also had carried out abuses in the breakaway Republic, but not reportedly to the degree or scale of their Russian counterparts.

Talbott then sought to make the point that the key challenge for the United States -- and international community -- was in finding the right mix of words and influence to bring about positive change on the part of Russia's actions in Chechnya. Talbott said it won't be easy:

"The real point here is that Chechnya has brought out, brought back one of the worst habits from the Russian past and the Soviet past, which is to treat an entire category of people, and in this case, citizens of the Russian Federation, as enemies."

Talbott said the question now is whether the growing condemnation on the part of the international community is going to translate into a realization on the part of the Russian authorities that they have to definitively deal with this problem.

He said near and long-term Russian efforts should focus on three areas: acknowledging the past with an honest accounting of events; shifting from a reliance on brute force to one of dialogue and, in future, rebuilding the region.

Those were points on which everyone could agree. Nevertheless, Talbott still faced a tough line of questioning on everything from the whereabouts and worth of U.S. aid to Chechnya, to the war's resultant affects on regional stability. Throughout it all, Talbott reiterated the U.S. view that it is better to remain "engaged" with Russia:

"There are a lot of things going on across that vast country that need and deserve our support and which, if we support are more likely to prevail over time in the struggle that's going on in Russia between the forces of the new and the forces of the old. And we should keep that very much in mind as we look at suggestions for, as it were, punitive linkages."

At the same time, Talbott said Chechnya is, in his words, "obstacle number one" for Russia and for U.S. policy. He also said it was his view that it would probably remain that way for quite some time.

Meanwhile, subcommittee members said America's standing is also at risk, failing stronger future recourse.