Writing in the June 13 issue of Moskovskie Novosti, journalist Sanobar Shermatova recalled that, in earlier issue of the same weekly for this year, she had written about “proposals for a Stabilization Fund for the ‘hot spots’ of the Caucasus” which President George Bush of the United States was intending to take to Moscow on the occasion of his May summit meetings with President Putin. What was in fact agreed at the May summit, she wrote, citing a participant in the event, was that “henceforth Moscow and Washington will be speaking in hushed tones about the Chechen theme. Judging from everything, the time for loud declarations concerning Chechnya has now receded into the past.”
Shermatova’s “informed interlocutor” provided the following version of what occurred at the summit: “Several minutes were devoted [at the summit] to the theme of Chechnya, and the conversation of the presidents on that topic bore a distinctly formal character. George Bush declared: ‘We would like for you to conduct a dialogue with the Chechens.’ To which President Putin responded: ‘We are conducting a dialogue with Kadyrov.’ Scarcely was the last name of the present head of the [pro-Moscow] Chechen administration known to the American president, but this theme was not developed further.”
The journalist then continued her account: “In the words of the interlocutor of Moskovskie Novosti, henceforth the accent in the Chechen thematics will be shifted in the direction of cooperation between the two countries, although this will not be strongly publicized. As has become known to Moskovskie Novosti, following the visit of President Bush [to Moscow], there have appeared new variants for financing stability in the Caucasus. The Americans are inclining toward dividing the aid program into two parts: a Russian part and a Georgian part. Moreover, judging from everything, for Russia there will not be a single scheme of financing, as was planned previously.” “According to preliminary plans,” Shermatova went on, “the Russian regions should occupy themselves with the restoration of Chechnya (recreating an infrastructure and providing a housing fund). The Russian Federal Center and the American Stabilization Fund would also participate in this effort. The Americans, most likely, will repudiate the idea of a single stabilization fund, from which one could directly apportion finances. Preference will be given to a mechanism of financing which would not be direct but would proceed ‘in a round-about fashion,’ through the structures and agencies of the United Nations and through international humanitarian organizations and NGOs.”
While this new “round-about” American plan for helping with Chechen reconstruction and humanitarian aid, Shermatova noted, runs the risk of creating more bureaucracy, it does provide one important benefit: “Direct [American] aid to the North Caucasus, provided on a large scale, could, they believe, harm, in the eyes of Russians [rossiyan], the approval rating of President Putin as an independent politician. In the plans for the program, schemas are not excluded concerning the financing by private American capital of individual projects in the Caucasus. However, all such efforts will be carried out under the guarantee of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, something which would of course elevate the attractiveness of the Caucasus projects.”
“Why,” Shermatova asked, “is the United States entering the Caucasus, and why is it doing so through such a round-about maneuver, via the structures of the UN and NGOs? In the Russian corridors of power, they answer that security in the Caucasus is being placed within a common formula–both for the U.S. and Russia–related to the struggle with international terrorism. However, this program can also have another subtext: Moscow and Washington have begun to agree on the creation of spheres of influence in the regions of the Caucasus and the Caspian. The presence of the United States in Georgia places definite obligations on Washington. It is impossible to achieve stability in this republic [Georgia] without stabilizing the region as a whole, and the Americans are prepared to pay for that…. The United States is prepared to pay for the development of the North Caucasus for the sake of a reliable Georgian bridge-head.” Despite this new role for “an overseas uncle with a big wallet,” Shermatova concluded, stability in the Caucasus region will depend in the final analysis “on the Russians and Chechens themselves.”
Before commenting on Shermatova’s report, one ought to remark that, in at least one sphere, there seems to be evidence for what she describes. In a plan spearheaded by governor Dmitry Ayatskov of Saratov Oblast, and vigorously supported by former Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, regions of the Russian Federation are to economically assist villages, towns, and sub-units of large cities located in Chechnya. As the pro-government Russian website Strana.ru observed recently: “Representatives of Saratov Oblast have proposed to the federal center the following schema: one region of Russia takes under its ‘wardship’ one district of Chechnya and helps it according to its strength and possibilities to elevate its economy and to ensure conditions for independent growth and development. In the Chechen Republic there are eighteen districts. Cannot there be found in the country eighteen strong oblasts and republics which, according to their economic potential, could offer help in restoring Chechnya?” Saratov Oblast, for its part, has agreed to take under its wardship Grozny Village District, “one of the largest in the republic.” “The problems of Chechnya,” Governor Ayatskov proclaimed, “are our problems. In Rus’ it was always accepted to share one’s bread. And it is our sacred duty to help the work-loving [Chechen] people” (Strana.ru, May 21).
As for what Shermatova wrote on the subject of newly agreed-upon “spheres of influence,” one notes that Gazeta.ru has recently reported that on June 14 “Uzbekistan officially left the [GUUAM] union with Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldavia, which had been created to pique Russia…. With difficulty containing its rejoicing, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hinted to Uzbekistan that it ought to return to the [Russia-dominated] Treaty on Collective Security.” “It is worth remarking,” Gazeta.ru continued its coverage, “that, before pleasing the Kremlin, the Uzbek authorities consulted with the Americans. On Thursday [June 13] a deputy aide to the Secretary of State of the United States for the countries of Europe and Asia, Lynn Pasco, arrived in Tashkent and met with the same minister, Kamilov, who announced Uzbekistan’s departure from GUUAM” (Gazeta.ru, June 14). In what might be a related development, on 14 June the newspaper Kommersant wrote that, “In accord with a new Russian law, citizens of the former USSR who reside in so-called nonrecognized states (including Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and do not recognize the power of the local metropolias (and thus remain without citizenship) can now exchange their Soviet passport for a Russian one.” The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was said to have sent Moscow a note of protest over this new law. In this case, it was not at all clear that the law has the backing of the Americans.
To return to Shermatova’s pioneering article, it must be strongly underlined that what she learned from her “informed interlocutor” and from other sources needs to be bolstered by additional evidence and hard facts. At this point, one should perhaps limit oneself to posing a few questions. For example: How does President Putin’s “dialogue” with a de facto Russian political marionette, Kadyrov, equal any kind of dialogue with the separatists? (Moscow already tried out such a self-dialogue during the 1994-1996 war, and the policy failed abysmally.) Further: Why is it necessary to discuss only in muted tones Russia’s massive human rights violations in Chechnya, abuses which clearly rival those committed by the Milosevic regime? And: Why is it in the perceived national interest of the United States to keep Putin’s popularity rating soaring above seventy percent? And finally: How and in what ways does the United States understand the term “sphere of interest,” and how does Putin’s government, for its part, understand the term?