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
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
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
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
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
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.