Armed Chechen militants continue to hold some 700 people hostage in a Moscow theater and are threatening to kill everyone unless Russia withdraws from the breakaway North Caucasus republic. How will the crisis affect U.S. policies and attitudes toward the Chechens, especially at a time when Washington wants Russian support at the United Nations for action against Iraq?
Washington, 25 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's too early to say just how the Moscow hostage crisis will affect the U.S. stance on the Chechen conflict. But analysts largely agree that it could tempt Washington to move closer to the Russian view, i.e., that the Chechen war is not about separatism but is a battle against terrorism similar to America's own struggle.
Washington has long chastised Moscow for alleged human rights violations in the breakaway North Caucasus republic. But after Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly backed America's war on terrorism after last year's 11 September attacks, Washington's criticism became less vocal. President George W. Bush acknowledged that Russia faces terrorism in Chechnya, though U.S. officials have privately played down Putin's claims that the Chechens are working with Al-Qaeda.
Now, however, U.S. policy could swing more strongly behind Moscow and against the separatists as a result of the hostage crisis, at a time when the United States wants to persuade a reluctant Russia to back a tough United Nations resolution on disarming Iraq.
Analysts also say the hostage crisis could set back efforts to end the Chechen conflict through future peace negotiations between Moscow and the separatist Chechen leadership of President Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov has condemned the hostage taking and says he has never supported violence against civilians.
Fiona Hill, a Caucasus expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said: "It's a PR disaster overall. I mean, not just for Mr. Putin, but also for the Chechens."
She said that for the Bush administration, which has made the war on terrorism its chief focus, it's going to be hard to continue efforts to get the two sides to end their conflict. "Behind the scenes, the [Bush] administration had been putting pressure on Russia -- I mean, very quietly -- to seek a political solution. And it had been trying to encourage the Russians to distinguish between the terrorists and those who are pressing more legitimate political claims. I think that this will really complicate that effort," Hill said.
Some 40 Chechen rebels demanding an end to the conflict with Russia continue to hold up to 700 hostages after seizing control of a Moscow theater late on 23 October. At least one hostage has been shot dead, and the theater has reportedly been booby-trapped and some hostages strapped with explosives.
Maskhadov's administration, which over the summer was seen as moving closer to more militant elements of the Chechen resistance, has condemned the hostage taking, saying it never supported violence against civilians as a means to achieving its ends.
But Lyoma Usmanov, Maskhadov's Washington representative, acknowledged that however the hostage crisis pans out, it could end up damaging the Chechen cause in America's capital.
Asked if he expects a hardening of the U.S. stance on the Chechens, Usmanov told RFE/RL that it is "very likely. Because they [the Americans] don't know, they don't think about the nature of the crisis, which is a historical issue. They don't want to think about human rights. I'm not talking about independence. I'm talking about basic human rights, of people every day killing hundreds and hundreds [of Chechen civilians]."
But the Chechen resistance involves many different groups, and not all observers take what Maskhadov says at face value, especially since last summer's unification of Chechen military forces appeared to bring him closer to extremist elements, such as rebel leader Shamil Basaev.
Ivan Rybkin, a former speaker of the Russian State Duma, was the chief architect of the 1997 Russian-Chechen peace deal and is a prominent Russian voice in favor of peace talks with the Chechens. He told a public forum at RFE/RL in Washington yesterday that while Maskhadov has moved closer to the Chechen fringes, he should not be confused with them.
Rybkin urged Washington to see the Chechen conflict as clearly one of separatism that can be solved through peace talks, not as a black-and-white war against terrorism. "I should repeat that in the south of Russia, we are dealing primarily with pure separatism, which, of course, has been joined by all kinds of individual bandits, criminals, and terrorists. But I should say it is extremely difficult to attempt to force such a complex problem that exists in the Caucasus into a very simple formula on international terrorism. It's like trying to put on a wrong-sized shoe," Rybkin said.
Chris Swift agrees. Swift, who is with the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, told RFE/RL that the recent joining of Chechen military forces should be viewed positively by Washington. "While there is some concern in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere that this may, in fact, mean that Maskhadov is moving toward the extremists in Chechnya, our interpretation of the situation is rather that it's a consolidation of political/military power and that consolidation will eventually enable Maskhadov and appropriate Russian interlocutors to sit down at the table and be able actually to resolve the conflict. You can't have a cease-fire unless you have a unified command," Swift said.
Rybkin acknowledged, however, that with the United States keen on winning Russian support at the UN Security Council for its draft resolution on Iraq, Washington could be tempted to see things Moscow's way. "Of course, it is the right of the United States to use the situation, this misfortune in Moscow, to its own advantage. That's its right. But as I said, an adequate analysis of the situation would lead to the right decisions," Rybkin said.
Zeyno Baran is an analyst of the Caucasus region at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Baran doesn't think the Bush administration will seek to win Russian support on Iraq at the UN in exchange for a hardening of its position toward the Chechens, or toward Georgia, a U.S. ally that Russia says harbors what it calls Chechen terrorists. "Russia has for months been trying to play that game. But I don't think that the American side is equating the two. They're totally different. I would say, though, that the U.S. position is definitely going to get harder on the Chechen situation. But I don't think that it will be a quid pro quo on Iraq or, let's say, on Georgia," Baran said.
Still, both Baran and Hill of the Brookings Institution say it's still far too early to know how the hostage crisis will affect U.S. policy.
For now, Hill thinks the United States will sit back and watch developments. In the end, she said, the hostage crisis could lead to more violence but also to the kind of global pressure that could finally push Russia and the Chechen separatists to the negotiating table in a bid to end their conflict.