Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 37

In an interview with journalist Megan Twohey of the Moscow Times, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, commented on the subject of Chechnya: “The Chechnya issue is a very tricky one. We’re trying to walk a very fine line. We continue to have deep concerns about the Russians’ military tactics, the loss of life to the civilian population and the human rights abuses against the civilian population. And we continue to argue that a political solution is the only way out. That being said, we have long recognized that Osama bin Laden and other international networks have been fueling the flames in Chechnya, including the involvement of foreign commanders, like Khattab. So notwithstanding our concerns, we’re working with the Russians to cut off these external sources of support, and that includes intelligence-sharing, and working with Georgia to tighten up controls. We’re also trying to nurture a small opening for a peace process by making clear to the Chechens that they should break their ties to these foreign terrorists and take up the offer for a dialogue that Putin raised on September 24.”

Vershbow went on to add: “Our view is that the relentless escalation of military pressure is not just destroying Chechnya and displacing the majority of the civilian population, but that it’s radicalizing the Chechen people into the hands of the extremists…. That is not to say that Russia doesn’t have a right to defend its territorial integrity. We’re opposed to Chechnya independence. We’re opposed to anybody trying to break away from any country by force. But they’re making it harder to get a solution. The right path would be to find some interlocutors who can speak for the Chechen people and work out a political solution that leads to disarmament–as we tried to achieve in the Balkans–and normalization of rebuilding Chechen society” (Moscow Times, October 12).

In a speech delivered on October 6 during a meeting of the Green Party in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer asserted that Russia’s justified right to protect its territorial integrity did not give it the right to abuse human rights in Chechnya. Fischer said that it was appropriate to regard existing conflicts in a new light following the September 11 attacks on the United States but then underscored, “The differentiated view of Chechnya should not lead to our suddenly forgetting our own fundamental values of adhering to human rights and not accepting the breach of human rights.” Fischer’s comments appeared to put him at odds with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who had hinted last month that the West would take a softer line toward military action in Chechnya, after Moscow had offered support in the international struggle against terrorism (AP, October 8).

In an essay entitled “Chechnya: Stronghold of Terrorism?”, appearing in the October 5 issue of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, commentator Andreas Ruesch, recalling that German Chancellor Schroeder had recently appealed for a “more differentiated evaluation” of events in Chechnya and that a U.S. presidential spokesman had stressed that it was beyond doubt that international terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden were operating in Chechnya, proceeded to ask whether Moscow was in fact justified in characterizing the Chechen separatists as “terrorists and bandits.” To be sure, he wrote, dozens of Russian soldiers are being killed each month in Chechnya through such methods as bombs and surprise attacks. “Looked at soberly, however,” Ruesch added, “these are not acts of terrorism but typical guerilla tactics which are directed against military targets, as a rule. The separatists have not engaged in the murder of civilians for the purpose of general intimidation.” Chechen civilians being assassinated by the separatists “are usually representatives of the administration installed by Moscow–collaborators with a regime of occupation, from the separatists’ point of view.”

While there are, Ruesch continued his essay, unquestionably volunteers from the Muslim world fighting in Chechnya, “Russian assertions that the ‘Arabs’ constitute the backbone of the Chechen rebels are pure propaganda. Moscow is using such statements to divert attention from the fact that the Chechen conflict is largely homemade.” Moscow constantly points to alleged relations between field commander Khattab and Osama bin Laden, but “if one pushes for concrete facts on ties between bin Laden and the Chechen guerillas, facts about financial streams and weapons assistance, the Moscow authorities suddenly become very quiet.”

In similar fashion, Ruesch went on, Russian allegations that Chechens were somehow connected with the terror bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk in September of 1999 should likewise be closely scrutinized. “Two years later, the official investigation of the tragedy is still far from completed. In the case of the Buinaksk attack, a court sentenced four alleged low-level helpers to long prison terms, and another trial is [currently] proceeding in strict secrecy…. Oddly, not one of those persons [arrested] is of Chechen nationality…. Suspicions that the Russian authorities could have staged the terrorism themselves were particularly aroused by a strange development in the city of Ryazan [on the night of September 22-23, 1999]….” An intelligent Russian policy toward Chechnya, Ruesch concluded his essay, would be “to aim at strengthening a moderate leader like Maskhadov vis-a-vis the extremists and build him up as a negotiating partner, instead of simply branding him a criminal.”