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CHECHNYA LINKS LIBRARY

January 28th 2002 · The Washington Post / Fred Hiatt · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

Tiptoe diplomacy

Last Wednesday the Russian desk officer at the State Department slipped out of his office for a rendezvous so sensitive that the Bush administration would not allow it to take place on government property.

Sadly, this was not a case of back-channel diplomacy or counterespionage or other juicy intrigue. What administration folks were sensitive to were the tender feelings of Russian President Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush's ranch guest and soulmate. The rendezvous was with Ilyas Akhmadov, a representative of the elected government of Chechnya, and the problem was that Putin tends to get a little huffy whenever anyone calls attention to his savage war against that separatist province.

The Bush folks, having beaten up on President Clinton for his insufficient concern for the plight of the Chechens, apparently couldn't bring themselves to shut the door altogether to Akhmadov. But they hoped that a brief session in an otherwise deserted classroom at George Washington University might keep Putin from getting too mad.

This skulking diplomacy is odd for a few reasons. It's odd because Richard Armitage, in his confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary of state, said he expected that the Bush administration would receive Chechnya's representatives at the level of assistant secretary of state -- the implication also being, though Armitage didn't say so explicitly, that such meetings would not take place in underground garages.

It's odd because the Europeans, normally first in line to kowtow to Moscow, have shown the fortitude to receive Akhmadov's colleague in the open -- in the British Foreign Ministry and at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

It's odd most of all because Bush's explicit policy on Chechnya, to the extent that one exists, is to convince the Russians that no military solution is possible and that Putin should meet with, yes, Akhmadov and his colleagues. How much credibility will such urgings have now?

What's going on here, not surprisingly, is more Sept. 11 fallout. The Americans want Russian cooperation in the war on terrorism. One part of the price for that cooperation, the Kremlin has made clear, is American acquiescence in its view of the war in Chechnya -- which is that the Russian operation is a war against terrorists, as just as America's war in Afghanistan.

Right about there, many Americans shrug and say, well, maybe so, it's all so complicated, and after all the Chechens are Muslims, and they have had support from al Qaeda terrorists, and who really knows what's happening in the Caucasus mountains? This is where Putin's strategy of choking the media comes into play. He's made sure that there is no longer an independent Russian television network to cover the war. Most journalists don't even try, and some who do -- such as Anna Politkovskaya and Andrei Babitsky -- are harassed and jailed by Russian forces.

Still, enough information does emerge -- from Russian and foreign correspondents, and from Russian and foreign human rights groups, such as the Moscow-based Memorial -- to say flatly that the Chechnya and Afghanistan campaigns are not the same. Genocide is a word too often used lightly, but it belongs in this conversation. Before Russia's first war against Chechnya, which lasted from late 1994 into 1996, the population of Chechnya was estimated at 1.1 million, including many ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Last fall, two years into the second war, Hoover Institution scholar John B. Dunlop estimated that Russia had killed some 12,000 Chechen fighters and 55,000 to 60,000 civilians. These are conservative estimates; Memorial's are much higher. Dunlop also noted that the number of refugees living in a next-door province in dire circumstances was probably twice the official tally of 148,000. Since then many more have been killed, and before and since many tens of thousands have been forced into exile, either within Russia or abroad.

No one seriously disputes the Russian tactics that have brought about this catastrophe: the wanton shellings and bombings, the murders of civilians, the kidnappings for ransom. The result, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, is the "tremendous depletion of a very limited human population."

Brzezinski, a former national security adviser who is now co-chair of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, adds, "A significant percentage of the male population aged 16 to 50 has been liquidated... There are no POWs."

No one suggests that the United States can force Russia to alter its behavior, and few Americans are ready to endorse Chechen independence or ignore the separatists' ties to Arab extremists. What is attainable, and what some administration officials continue to seek, is a balanced policy toward Russia, in which legitimate horror at the war in Chechnya plays a credible and substantial role. As State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said forthrightly a few weeks ago, "The lack of a political solution and the number of credible reports of massive human rights violations, we believe, contribute to an environment that is favorable towards terrorism."

When the State Department then is so unwilling to offend Putin that it sends its officials slinking out of their own offices, that sends a different message. It tells human rights abusers around the world that it pays to push Bush around; it's worth at least trying to intimidate him. And it tells every government that would like to disguise its human rights abuses as anti-terrorism campaigns that Washington just might go along.

One such government, the Soviet-style dictatorship of the ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, is welcoming a high-level U.S. delegation this week. The Americans, to their credit, are pushing for at least a little space for civil society, a modest easing of repression. Uzbekistan's strongman will push back. Watch to see whether human rights get anywhere, or whether they end up in the Tashkent equivalent of an empty classroom at GWU.

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