Russia was rocked by an explosion in Daghestan on Wednesday that killed at least 41 people, including 12 children. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the attack on "terrorists" -- a common Kremlin term for Chechen rebels -- the U.S. repeated its position on Thursday that Moscow must start a real political dialogue with Chechnya's "moderate leadership" and address allegations of Russian human-rights violations in the breakaway republic.
Washington, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is set to press President Vladimir Putin on the issue of Russian human-rights abuses in the breakaway North Caucasus republic of Chechnya when the two leaders meet at a summit this month in Russia.
The presidents, whose already warm relations appeared to grow even closer in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., are expected to sign a deal to cut their countries' nuclear-arms stockpiles at the May 23-25 summit in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But Steven Pifer, the deputy U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told a congressional panel in Washington on Thursday he expects Bush will not limit himself to the formal protocol of treaty signing. He said Bush will also tackle "tough issues" with Putin, such as Chechnya and media freedom.
"The relationship between President Bush and President Putin is such where President Bush feels very comfortable raising difficult issues, whether it's the question of media freedom or Chechnya, and these issues have come up quite frequently in the past. And it's my expectation that this will be on the agenda when President Bush visits Moscow in two weeks' time," Pifer said.
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Pifer repeated the U.S. position on the Chechen conflict: that there should be a political settlement giving the breakaway republic broad autonomy within Russia, and that Moscow should be held accountable for human-rights abuses its military may have committed.
And he also called on Moscow to resume political negotiations with Chechnya's "moderate leadership."
Pifer's comments came after an explosion earlier in the day killed at least 41 people and wounded some 140 during a parade in the southern Russian republic of Daghestan, which borders Chechnya. The U.S. State Department called the explosion an atrocity and likely to be the work of terrorists.
At least 12 of the dead were children, killed when a land mine exploded as a marching band passed during Victory Day celebrations in the Caspian port of Kaspiisk.
Putin, who defends Russia's nearly three-year war in Chechnya as an antiterrorist operation, blamed the explosion on "terrorists" -- his usual term to describe separatist Chechen rebels.
"Terrorism is akin to Nazism. It is as dangerous, brutal, and murderous. Today's crime was committed by scum for whom nothing is sacred, and we have the right to treat [the perpetrators] as Nazis, as those whose only goal is to sow terror and murder people," Putin said.
Pifer did not comment on the apparent attack. But he repeated long-standing concerns by the State Department and various international human-rights organizations that Russian security forces have systematically violated human rights in Chechnya with torture, rape, and extra-judicial killings.
Pifer said the U.S. still believes there is no military solution to the conflict and urges peace negotiations to resume between Russia and moderate Chechens led by President Aslan Maskhadov. Representatives of both sides have not officially engaged in talks since briefly meeting once last November.
The American diplomat also dismissed recent Russian claims that the situation in Chechnya is "normalizing."
"[They say] that they are restoring the legal institutions, the local government institutions, that will allow life in Chechnya to get back to normal. Our sense is that really masks a reality that is much more difficult," Pifer said.
Pifer recalled that shortly after Putin declared in April that the fighting was virtually over, 19 Russian security officers were killed in a Chechen bomb attack. "That just indicates to us that the fighting is going to continue -- our fear being that without some real political dialogue between Moscow and moderates in Chechnya, there really is not going to be a way to bring this conflict to a conclusion."
Pifer said he believes Russia should begin to trust Chechnya's moderates and acknowledge that the conflict is not solely an antiterrorist operation.
But the diplomat admitted the U.S. has made a slight shift in its own stance on Chechnya after September's terrorist attacks on the U.S., which killed 3,000 people.
"We began to call -- both publicly but also in our private contacts with the Chechens -- on the Chechens, the moderate Chechens, to disassociate themselves from those who are linked to groups like Al- Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. That was, rightly or wrongly, something that our policy was really silent on before 11 September," Pifer said.
Pifer added, however, that despite public criticism by Maskhadov of international terrorist organizations, the U.S. has not seen specific signs that the moderate leadership is really "drawing back" from such groups.
Anatol Lieven, an author and Russian- and Caucasus-affairs expert, also testified at the hearing. A senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Lieven said chaos and instability reigned in Chechnya following the peace deal that ended the first war in 1996. He said it is not in the U.S.'s interests to see a return to such a state of confusion, which he compared to the terrorist breeding ground that was Afghanistan under the Taliban.
"This included not just a terrorist and extremist threat, but also a very major explosion of criminality, kidnapping, and banditry against Russians, against other citizens of the Caucasus and against Western visitors to the region," Lieven said.
Lieven also said that after 11 September, Americans can better appreciate the terrorist threat that Russia says it faces in Chechnya. He said Moscow has reason to doubt that Maskhadov can actually control the situation on the ground among Chechen rebels.
However, Lieven said Russia's actions in Chechnya are defeating its own goals in the region by increasing hatred toward Moscow -- hatred that will likely lead to more extremist actions like terrorism.
But Pifer said Russia's knee-jerk reaction is usually to blame everything bad that happens in Chechnya on "terrorists." He said Russian security services are actually often to blame for rampant human-rights violations in the breakaway republic.
Pifer also said that Russia has failed to follow through on most of its probes into alleged Russian human-rights abuses. He called the trial of Colonel Yurii Budanov a "test case" to show that Russia is serious about human-rights abuses. But he blamed Russian authorities for allowing the case to drag on for over a year.
Budanov, the first member of the Russian forces to be prosecuted for human-rights abuses since the war in Chechnya began, is on trial for kidnapping and murdering an 18-year-old Chechen woman.