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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs > Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Releases > Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Remarks > 2002 > May

U.S. Policy on Chechnya

Steven Pifer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs
Statement Before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Washington, DC
May 9, 2002

Chairman Nighthorse Campbell, Co-Chairman Smith and CSCE commissioners, thank you for the invitation to speak today on Chechnya. The Administration welcomes this opportunity to discuss U.S. policy on Chechnya and the events of the past several months.

As you all know, the current conflict in Chechnya in a few months will begin its third year. Coming on the heels of the first conflict in Chechnya from 1994-1996, this latest conflict has dragged on nearly twice as long but with a similarly tragic price in human lives, people’s homes, and Chechen society. The casualties mount every day -- for both sides, Chechen and Russian alike -- and the pain and suffering of innocent civilians resulting from the fighting see no end in sight. There are few places in the world that have borne such devastation as Chechnya. Continuation of the conflict not only constitutes a drain on Russian development and a living nightmare for innocent Chechens, but it poses a threat to the entire Caucasus region.

Sadly, this tragic situation shows no signs of ending soon. The fighting goes on. Russian forces conduct sweeps, sealing towns and villages and searching house to house for fighters. Often these sweeps are subsequently followed by reports of the beatings and torture of civilians, of extortion, or the disappearances of young men. Russian convoys are ambushed daily by Chechen fighters using landmines, and Russian blockposts or administrative buildings are often attacked in hit-and-run raids. Pro-Moscow Chechen administrators are assassinated. The economy is in shambles. Housing and infrastructure are destroyed, especially in Grozny where thousands still live, struggling from day to day in the most difficult conditions.

The United States Government is committed to doing all that we can to bring about an end to this conflict and to relieve the suffering of the civilian population. Through our humanitarian assistance programs and our diplomatic efforts, the United States remains engaged on Chechnya.

Our objectives for Chechnya today are the same as they have been in the past. We seek a political settlement that will end the fighting, promote reconciliation, and recognize the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. We also seek accountability for human rights abuses committed by all sides, and unimpeded access to the displaced by humanitarian organizations. As we have always done, we are working toward these objectives in our on-going discussions with the Russian Government, in concert with our friends and allies, and in partnership with international and non-governmental organizations.

A Political Settlement

On September 24, 2001 President Putin made a speech describing Russian readiness to assist the United States in the war on terrorism in the aftermath of September 11. But he went further on Chechnya, drawing a distinction between the "historic roots" of the conflict in Chechnya and the presence of foreign terrorists. We saw in this distinction the basis for the possibility that talks could begin. We were thus pleased when on September 25 Chechen leader Maskhadov welcomed President Putin's speech and opened the door for a political dialogue.

After weeks of jockeying and phone contacts, a face-to-face meeting between a Russian Government official and a Chechen representative took place in late November. Unfortunately, there have been no meetings to follow up on that, and we understand that contacts have been suspended. But as have said repeatedly, a political settlement is the only way that this conflict can be ended, peace and stability can be returned to Chechnya and the process of rebuilding can be started. Russian Government officials have noted progress in re-establishing government structures and say they are working toward "normalizing" the situation. Without some settlement with those forces engaged in the fighting, however, we do not believe this will be enough to end the fighting.

Clearly, the causes and motivations of Chechens fighting the Russians differ. There are those who see this as a struggle to protect their homeland. And there are others in Chechnya who have been linked to international terrorist circles.

We do not ask the Russian Government to try to reach accord with terrorists. But we do believe that there are those with whom discussions can be undertaken, such as Mr. Maskhadov -- a leader who has sufficient credibility with the broader Chechen population to speak for them in a political dialogue with Moscow. We intend to continue to make this point to the Russian Government, as we have consistently in the past, and we encourage our allies to do so as well. We hope that contacts will be resumed in the near future. However, while we see some indications of interest on the Russian side in launching a dialogue, we are not able to offer a reliable prediction as to when Russian-Chechen political contacts might be resumed.

At the same time, we have called on Mr. Maskhadov and other moderate Chechens to disassociate themselves with terrorists. Contrary to some media reporting, we have not seen evidence of extensive ties between Chechens and Al-Qaida in Chechnya, but we have seen evidence of individuals or certain factions linked to terrorist elements. A clear demonstration by Mr. Maskhadov that he does not maintain such ties is appropriate as a gesture to show he is a credible interlocutor for the Russians. And we intend to continue to make that point to the Chechens as well.

We have taken action on this point. Some Chechen forces with links to international terrorists are supported through groups operating in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, which borders Chechnya. Last fall, Russian aircraft conducted several air strikes against the Pankisi Gorge. While we agree that the Russians have a legitimate concern, we have urged them not to take action themselves. Instead, we are working with President Shevardnadze and the Georgian Government to train and equip Georgian military units, so that Georgia will have the capacity to deal with this problem itself.

Despite the death of field commander Khattab, an Arab linked to terrorists and commander of the foreign mujahidin in Chechnya, and the rumored death of field commander Shamil Basayev, another of those linked to terrorists, the conflict is likely to continue at its present level. We believe that more than one thousand Chechen fighters remain. The Chechens' ability to recruit new fighters is aided in part by the animosity created by the harsh tactics of Russian security forces. As we have said repeatedly and continue to believe, there is no military solution to this conflict.

The Humanitarian Situation

An estimated 300,000 Chechens have been displaced by the fighting. More than half of the displaced -- 160,000 -- remain in Chechnya. The displaced account for more a third of Chechnya's estimated population of 440,000. Of the rest, the largest concentration is in Ingushetiya, with others in Dagestan and other areas of Russia, or in Georgia, Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan. The United Nations estimates that 140,000 Chechens are in Ingushetiya now, and 65 percent of them are living in private homes, with relatives or others who would take them in. The rest live in camps or spontaneous settlements. These people are largely dependent on aid provided by the international community.

The United States has been the largest single provider of humanitarian aid to the North Caucasus. Since 1999 we have contributed more than 30 million dollars, an amount that is roughly a quarter of all aid given under the United Nation's consolidated humanitarian appeals. In FY2001, the United States contributed a total of 22.1 million dollars to the United Nations and its agencies, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and non-governmental organizations. Included in that sum is 9.6 million dollars of monies earmarked by Congress for American non-governmental organizations to carry out projects in the region.

Much of contribution has been in the form of food aid, such as wheat, flour and cooking oil. In FY2001, our funds helped feed 335,000 people. Our contributions also have funded much needed emergency health care, water and sanitation projects, education and shelter, as well as mine awareness programs. All of our contributions, except earmarked funds, are provided directly to the UN and the Red Cross for distribution through their agencies and implementing partners.

Beyond our contributions, we have assigned a refugee coordinator to our Embassy in Moscow who works with the international community and Russian officials in the delivery of our humanitarian assistance and reporting on further needs. The coordinator is a liaison with international and non-governmental organizations working in the field and federal and local governments. The coordinator also serves to monitor the situation on the ground, to observe the plight of the displaced and to identify where U.S. assistance programs should best be targeted.

In the North Caucasus, the security situation makes access to the region difficult. As you may know, there is a ban on U.S. Government personnel traveling to the region without the specific permission of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. But the priority we place on the humanitarian situation has required that we send our refugee coordinator to the region on several trips.

Our policy has emphasized that humanitarian organizations be given the necessary, unimpeded access to the region to reach the displaced. The Russian Government has generally provided this access for the delivery of relief, but there have been occasional problems with changing administrative requirements and lack of coordination by Russian federal authorities and the local Chechen administration. The security situation in Chechnya makes delivery of humanitarian assistance particularly difficult, however.

We have also stressed in our discussions with the Russian Government that the return of the displaced to Chechnya be voluntary. Russian authorities have assured us that is the case, but the local pro-Moscow Chechen administration has undertaken a campaign to convince the displaced to return. As long as the security situation shows no improvement, however, most will not. In addition, Moscow has cut payments to the government of Ingushetiya that had been used to support benefits to displaced Chechens. The cuts in food and other programs in Ingushetiya create pressure on Chechens to return despite the risky security situation. Finally, the Russian government has suspended registration of new displaced persons in Ingushetiya since February 2001, making new arrivals ineligible for social benefits – food, housing, even education for their children.

Human Rights

The danger to civilians in Chechnya remains our greatest concern. The human rights situation is poor, with a history of abuses by all sides and little or no accountability by either. As we discuss in detail in our most recent human rights report, and as both Russian and international human rights NGOs have reported, civilians in Grozny and other towns and villages in areas where there is rebel activity are subject to security sweeps, or zachistki, by Russian forces.

These sweeps may be planned or occur spontaneously if Russian troops in the area are attacked. The result is that the village is sealed off and troops conduct house to house searches, checking identity documents. Usually, these sweeps are swiftly followed by new reports of serious human rights abuses, such as summary execution, arbitrary detention, torture, beatings, or extortion. Frequently, some of those taken into detention disappear, and sometimes their bodies are found days later. There are reports of rape. According to the Russian human rights group Memorial, at least 600 people have disappeared since the conflict began, although Russian official statistics put the total reports of disappearances between 1,200 and 2,000.

Russian officials have acknowledged that Russian soldiers have committed crimes against civilians, but investigations and prosecutions have not kept pace with the scope of the human rights violations that have been reported. Russian commanders in Chechnya have issued orders intended to prevent these abuses. Under these orders, sweeps may only be conducted with the permission of the Russian commander in Chechnya, General Moltenskoi. Vehicles are to be clearly marked, and troops are to identify themselves before entering homes. Masks are not to be worn. Lists of detainees are to be circulated to local civilian administrators. But it appears that these orders have not been effectively implemented. Much more needs to be done to instill discipline in Russian security forces, to prevent abuses, and to prosecute those who commit them.

Publicly and privately, we have made this point to the Russian Government at all levels. As the Secretary said in his recent testimony before House and Senate, "We have not forgotten about Russian abuses of human rights. We raise Chechnya at every opportunity." The conduct of Russian forces in Chechnya must be improved. That is why we again supported the resolution on Chechnya before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights this year. The rights of the civilian population must be respected. In his recent State of the Federation speech, President Putin said that "Everyone resident in Chechnya or originally from there must feel they are full citizens of the Russian Federation."

The Chechen fighters are not without blame. There have been repeated attacks on local officials who work for the pro-Moscow Chechen Administration. The landmines and other explosives fighters have used against convoys have also wounded, maimed or killed innocent civilians. There are other reports of kidnapping and execution of Russian prisoners held hostage. Chechen fighters must also be held to account.

Chechnya and U.S.-Russian Relations

Russia is cooperating with us in the war on terrorism, and we are embarked on building a new, more cooperative bilateral relationship. President Putin has made clear that he sees a partnership with the United States and the West as the best course for Russia. President Bush has made clear that partnership with Russia is in our interest.

In just two weeks, Presidents Bush and Putin will meet in Moscow to discuss how to further strengthen relations between our two countries. We hope that they will be able to record concrete progress on a number of parts of the bilateral agenda, including security issues, economic relations and people-to-people exchanges.

As part of this new relationship, however, there remain issues on which we disagree. Chechnya is one of those issues, and it is an issue that we have raised regularly and candidly with the Russians. President Bush discussed it with President Putin in November, as did Secretary Powell with President Putin in Moscow in December. In the last two weeks, Chechnya has figured prominently on the agenda during Deputy Secretary Armitage's discussions in Moscow with Deputy Foreign Minister Trubnikov and during the meeting last Friday between Secretary Powell and Foreign Minister Ivanov. As we embrace this opportunity we now have to build a stronger relationship with Russia, we do so without compromising our principles and commitments to promote peace and the strengthening of human rights in Chechnya.



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