Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 109

The issues of human rights and democratic principles were clearly on the backburner during yesterday’s summit meeting between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin–at least judging by Clinton’s public statements. During the brief joint press conference given by the two leaders following their private meeting in the Kremlin, the U.S. president said that he had expressed concern over the number of civilian casualties in the Chechen war, and had urged Putin to seek a political settlement and to allow international monitors to investigate human rights abuses in the breakaway republic. This, however, was simply a restatement of U.S. official policy, and was far outweighed by Clinton’s statements of approval and encouragement of the Russian president’s policies during both the press conference and an appearance on a Moscow radio program later in the day. Clinton said his personal view was that Putin is “fully capable of building a prosperous, strong Russia while preserving freedom, and pluralism and the rule of law.” The U.S. president also spoke enthusiastically about the economic reform program which Putin outlined during their talks, saying that it would allow Russia to build on the current positive trends in the Russian economy and to attract foreign investment. Clinton also said that he would work to help Russia win renewed funding from the International Monetary Fund (Associated Press, Reuters, Russian agencies, Radio Ekho Moskvy, June 4).

He made no specific mention of several recent incidents which have raised doubts about Putin’s commitment to press freedom and democratic principles. These would include the May 11 raid by armed government agents on the headquarters of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group and the May 31 seizure by customs officials of copies of an Amnesty International report outlining alleged human rights abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya. Nor did he refer to the arrest and detention in Chechnya earlier this year of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. After being “exchanged” to unknown armed Chechens, Babitsky was released and allowed to return to Moscow, but has been prevented from traveling abroad while he remains under investigation for alleged collusion with the Chechen secessionists. On the other hand, Clinton participated yesterday in a call-in show on Radio Ekho Moskvy, which was simultaneously broadcast on NTV television. Both outlets are part of the Media-Most group, and thus Clinton’s appearance could be interpreted as a gesture in support of the media group. If so, the gesture was very oblique, and Clinton refrained from commenting specifically on the media group’s problems with the authorities (NTV, June 4).

It is worth noting in this regard that the Clinton administration seemed this time around even more reluctant to offend the Kremlin than it was during the tenure of Boris Yeltsin, whose authoritarian tendencies were arguably less pronounced than those of his successor. For example, in May 1995, in the midst of the first Chechen war and just days before Clinton’s summit with Yeltsin, then U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher met with Sergei Kovalev, then head of Yeltsin’s human rights commission and an outspoken critic of the Chechen campaign. Christopher praised Kovalev for his “great service on human rights” and said that the international community was in his debt (Moscow Times, May 5, 1995). Clinton’s timidity during this summit probably stemmed from a desire to defend his administration’s overall record on Russia in its waning days, and from the fact that the current Chechen war is–unlike the previous war–popular inside Russia, meaning that critics like Kovalev are more isolated. Nonetheless, there are still people who have been vocal in criticizing the Chechen war and Putin’s overall approach to human rights issues–Kovalev himself and other well-known human rights activists, like Yelena Bonner and Yuli Rybakov, leader of the Democratic Russia movement. Rybakov, who is also a member of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, recently said that Russia was standing “on the threshold of authoritarianism, behind which is visible the contours of fascism and even Nazism” (Russkaya Mysl, May 25). If Clinton or other administration officials met with any of these people during the summit, it was kept quiet.

In any case, it is possible that Clinton will address the issues of human rights and press freedom more directly today, when he delivers a speech to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.