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Russia: Chechen Foreign Minister Defiant On Deportation Anniversary

The warring sides in Chechnya today (23 February) mark two anniversaries: the Chechen fighters commemorate the 57th anniversary of the deportation of Chechens to Central Asia, while Russian troops celebrate Army Day. On the eve of a potentially explosive double anniversary, RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke with Ilyas Akhmatov, foreign minister-in-exile in the pro-independence government of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov.

Brussels, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One and a half years into Chechnya's second war with Russia in a decade, the breakaway republic's pro-independence government remains defiant.

Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the brutal deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia during World War II, Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmatov says the current war is only the most recent stage of a struggle that has gone on for centuries.

Akhmatov says his government believes Russia's ultimate aim is the extermination of the Chechen nation -- something he says independent observers would find ample evidence for if only Russia would let them into Chechnya.

Akhmatov says surrender would mean "national suicide."

"Unfortunately, our government does not have the luxury of choice. We are looking for only one outcome and we know that only that outcome will guarantee the life and security of our nation -- that outcome is victory."

Akhmatov acknowledges that the current war, which began at the end of 1999 and continues today, is not a satisfactory alternative. He estimates 70,000 Chechens have died and that more than 200,000 people have been forced to leave the country to live in pitiful conditions in refugee camps. The official Russian casualty count is much lower.

In the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia today, thousands of people gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the deportations. About 5,000 people attended a rally at a memorial near the city of Nazran. Participants demanded full political rehabilitation by Moscow of the victims of political repression.

The anniversary also was commemorated in Ingush camps for refugees from the fighting in Chechnya.

In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the mass deportations of the Chechens -- and Ingush -- to remote regions throughout the country. Almost half of those deported, numbering tens of thousands, died on their way into exile or on arrival in the new areas.

Russian forces fighting separatists in Chechnya stepped up security measures ahead of the anniversary. Reports said Russian forces closed access to the Chechen capital Grozny and the towns of Argun, Gudermes, and Urus-Martan.

Ahkmatov says his government has been willing to negotiate with Russia since the beginning of the war. He lists the demands as: a stop to fighting, the removal of troops from both sides to specially designated zones, and the start of talks under the aegis of the OSCE or another international mediator. He says Chechnya would also demand setting up an independent international commission to find out who was behind the 1999 bombings of apartments in Russia which triggered the war.

Akhmatov has spent the past year in shuttle diplomacy between Western European and North American capitals, traveling on a Russian passport and without being officially recognized by any government other than Afghanistan's Taliban.

Akhmatov says Chechnya is no longer looking for immediate international recognition. He says all of his contacts now serve one overriding objective: to bring an end to the war.

Akhmatov says his discussions in the West have been "very serious" and "very productive" and that Chechen views are heard and even acted upon, but he does not mention who he is speaking with:

"As a rule, these [diplomatic] contacts are semi-legal. This has to do with the protests of the Russian side. Russia is, after all, a great power. It has an enormous array of means to influence the course of events, including our foreign-policy goals. Sometimes when I have confirmed contacts, [Russia's influence] has had undesired effects, and we have lost potential friends who were ready to help us."

Akhmatov describes the Western position as generally "principled," mentioning declarations made by French President Jacques Chirac and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. But, he adds, these have in practice been limited to little more than expressions of concern.

Akhmatov says he remains skeptical of the international community's willingness or ability to bring an end to the conflict. He is particularly critical of the OSCE.

"The OSCE, the only organization with the mandate to have real influence on the situation [in Chechnya], has criminally distanced itself from the conflict. I remember the foreign minister of Austria, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, whose visit [as then president of the OSCE last year] raised high hopes in Chechnya. As I remember, all that she could retain from the visit was surprise at Putin's accent-free German."

Akhmatov says disillusionment with the West means that his government and its forces will have to carry on fighting. He says that although the rebels permanently control only about 20 percent of Chechnya's more mountainous terrain, after nightfall practically the entire country becomes Chechen territory. In recent months, Akhmatov says, Chechens have also begun taking the fight into larger towns in full daylight.