President Vladimir Putin discussed Chechnya in two interviews with European media in the lead-up to the May 9 celebrations in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of Victory Day. One of the interviews, on May 5, was with Germany’s ARD and ZDF television channels, while the other, on May 7, with France 3 television. Transcripts of the interviews were posted on the Kremlin’s website.
In the interview with German television, Putin denied that he finds it difficult to “accept criticism” – as the questioner put it – about the war in Chechnya. “We only have one concern – for coverage of the events that take place to be objective,” Putin said. He said that Russia in 1996 “almost completely provided independence to Chechnya,” but that “forces of international terrorism accumulated there,” culminating with the incursion into Dagestan in 1999 by forces intent on building an Islamic fundamentalist state, “a caliphate,” stretching “from the Caspian to the Black Sea.” By fighting in Chechnya, he argued, “we are solving a common European problem.” Given the conditions of the war, “I cannot rule out the fact that we face the problem of human rights violations,” Putin said, but added that “hundreds of criminal cases” have been brought against Russian soldiers believed to have broken the law in the conflict. He also held up Chechnya’s constitutional referendum and presidential election as positive steps, also noting the agreement on division of powers between Chechnya and the federal center currently under consideration and the republic’s parliamentary elections set for later this year.
Putin made many of the same points in his interview with France 3 television. He concluded that interview by saying: “We will continue to follow the road of political settlement and we seek to involve everyone in this process who wants a normal and peaceful life and wants the normal development that is natural for the Chechen people and the republic. At the same time, we will continue to fight determinedly against those who take up arms and try to carry out criminal plans, those who, under the cover of Islam and political slogans, use terror as a means to pursue their objectives.”
Meanwhile, in a May 7 speech in Riga, Latvia, President George W. Bush criticized the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Yalta agreement for consigning Eastern Europe to Soviet rule and obliquely criticized the Kremlin for moving away from democracy. He made no public mention, however, of Chechnya while in Latvia, during his May 8-9 visit to Moscow (where he met with Putin and attended the Victory Day commemoration), or in Tbilisi, Georgia.
On May 10, the separatist Chechenpress news agency’s website ran a commentary on the U.S. president’s decision to attend the Victory Day commemoration, which included a military parade on Red Square. It noted that President Bill Clinton traveled to Moscow in 1995 to attend the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Victory Day, but did not attend the main military parade at Poklonnaya Gora in western Moscow in order to avoid being seen as endorsing the first military campaign in Chechnya, which was then six months old.
“If, ten years ago, due to the war in Chechnya, President Bill Clinton could not allow himself to attend the military parade in Moscow in honor of the 50th anniversary of the victory over fascism because the sacred principles of democracy would not allow such a thing, then now attitudes toward a similar situation have changed fundamentally,” the Chechenpress commentary read. “Another American president, George [W.] Bush, took part in the festivities marking the 60th anniversary of the USSR’s victory over fascism despite the fact that… Yeltsin was replaced by a ruler who unleashed a crueler war in Chechnya [and] embarked on the path of curtailing democratic reform in Russia; who, moreover, does not simply regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, but is trying with all his might to reanimate Soviet fascism in the person of Stalin.”
For his part, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the chosen successor to the late separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, wrote a commentary that Chechenpress published on May 9 that was addressed to the more than 50 world leaders who would attend the 60th anniversary of Victory Day celebrations that day. “The truth for many peoples, including the Chechen people, consists in an objective assessment of the results of the Second World War that cardinally differs from the Russian interpretation,” Sadulaev wrote. “The fact is that 60 years ago one form of fascism (Hitlerite Nazism) was forcibly crushed by another form (Stalinist socialism) no less inhuman and cruel toward the ‘liberated’ peoples. Practically a half-century occupation of the countries of Eastern Europe, the deportation of the indigenous peoples of the Caucasus and Baltics in the northern regions of the country, massive repression against its own citizens put the USSR and its communist leadership headed by Stalin on the same level as the Nazi leadership of Hitlerite Germany.”
“In pronouncing high-sounding words about the ‘historical victory’ over Nazi Germany sixty years ago,” Sadulaev continued, “you, statesmen and politicians, will be pretending not to notice the unlimited lawlessness taking place on the territory of the tiny Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which has become an unwilling captive of the anti-popular Kremlin regime. Your words of greeting in the capital of the state-aggressor will sound like a justification of murder by Russian ‘death squads’ of more than 25 percent of the Chechen state. Your handshakes with Putin and other Russian leaders will mean approval of the experience of the fascist concentration camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz being applied by the Russian occupiers against the Chechens. And your plaudits to the Muscovites will be taken for delight at the murder of 45,000 Chechen children.”
Bush, it should be noted, held a 35-minute meeting with leading human rights activists and Putin critics in his hotel in Moscow before attending the Victory Day parade on Red Square. The meeting included representatives of groups that have been highly critical of Russian actions in Chechnya – Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Arseni Roginsky of the Memorial human rights group. Britain’s Guardian on May 10 quoted Roginsky as saying that the general tone of the meeting with Bush was “warm and supportive.”