Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 36

Russia and the United States also clashed anew last week over the war in Chechnya, first following a meeting between U.S. State Department officials and a Chechen parliamentary official and again after a State Department spokesman raised the issue of reported Russian atrocities in Chechnya. The first incident occurred on February 14 when Seilam Beshayev, deputy chairman of the Chechen parliament, met at the State Department with what were described as working level officials responsible for Russian, human rights and refugee affairs. Although Beshayev’s reception was obviously low-key, he was apparently accorded more official status than was another Chechen official, Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, who traveled to Washington last month. Mid-level State Department officials met with Akhmadov, but did so informally, recognizing him only as a private citizen and convening with him at a hotel rather than at the State Department.

The Russian Foreign Ministry had denounced the Akhmadov visit on January 14 (see the Monitor, January 18), and, not surprisingly, responded in a similar fashion to Beshayev’s reception in the United States. A Foreign Ministry statement called the U.S. action “absolutely unacceptable” and warned that Moscow expected the U.S. government “to avoid any official contacts with the representatives of Chechen terrorists.” On February 17, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin defended the meeting with Beshayev, suggesting that Moscow’s own news blockade of the North Caucasus had compelled the U.S. government to seek other sources of information regarding developments in the region (AP, Reuters, Russian agencies, February 17).

Rubin found himself in the middle of another, even sharper exchange between Moscow and Washington over Chechnya a day later. On February 18 the Russian Foreign Ministry lambasted Rubin for an additional comment he had made, one in which he said that “Russia has a clear obligation to investigate the numerous credible reports of civilian killings and alleged misconduct by its soldiers” in Chechnya. Rubin was clearly referring to accusations made by the organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Russian soldiers in Chechnya are guilty of beating, raping and summarily executing civilians suspected of aiding the rebel forces. The UN High Commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, has also criticized the Russian government for refusing to allow her to investigate such charges.

Also on February 18 a Russian Foreign Ministry statement charged that Rubin was “operating with clearly tendentious data and even outright bias supplied by the terrorists themselves.” It said that his remarks themselves “amount to assistance in information-terrorism.” The Foreign Ministry statement also said that the United States has no moral right to criticize Russia for its behavior in Chechnya. “It is hardly appropriate for those who rained hundreds of thousands of bombs and rockets on the residents of Yugoslavia and who continue bombing innocent women, children and old people in Iraq… to raise the issue of Chechen humanitarian suffering” (Reuters, AP, February 18). The exchange illustrated anew the degree to which the war in the Caucasus is likely to remain a flashpoint in relations between Russia and the United States, despite what has been in fact a rather muted response by the Clinton Administration to events in the Caucasus.