Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Amb. Steven Pifer
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs - U.S. Department of State

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Overview

Chairman Smith, Co-Chairman Campbell, CSCE Commissioners, thank you for this opportunity to update the Commission on the situation in Chechnya and Administration actions related to the Chechen crisis. There have been a number of important developments since I last had the opportunity to meet with the Commission in May 2002.

Regrettably, since I spoke with you last, the daily reality for the people of Chechnya has been bleak and deteriorating. The present phase of the armed conflict there entered its fourth year this summer. The toll of casualties, both Chechen and Russian, combatant and civilian, continues to mount. The living conditions for the great majority of Chechens, whether living inside Chechnya itself or displaced to other regions of the Russian Federation, remain dire. Deplorable violations of human rights persist; terrorist attacks by Chechen extremists have increased. Although the Russian Government has launched a new effort to find a political solution, based on the election of a new Chechen President and legislative body, it is not clear that this effort will lead to a peaceful settlement.

Continuing instability in Chechnya complicates both the war on global terrorism and our attempts to improve relations with the Russian Federation. After the 1994-96 Chechen war, the resulting chaos and lack of rule of law drew international terrorists to Chechnya. Treatment by Russian security forces of the civilian population during the current war has contributed to growing extremism and further sharpened the conflict. Moscow's black and white treatment of the conflict makes cooperation in the war on terrorism more difficult as its conduct of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya fuels sympathy for the extremists' cause and undermines Russia's international credibility. This in turn has a deleterious effect on the overall U.S.-Russia relationship.

The United States Government remains firmly engaged on Chechnya. While we support Russia's territorial integrity and right to defend itself against terrorism, we consistently press the Russian Government in various channels to end human rights abuses committed by Russian security forces, and to prosecute those found responsible when violations do occur. We remain committed to a cessation of violence by all parties and to finding a sustainable political solution to the conflict. Simultaneously, through our humanitarian assistance programs, we seek to alleviate to the greatest extent possible the tragic suffering of the civilian population.

Political Framework

In this crucible of military stalemate and humanitarian disaster, there have been important political developments since May 2002.

The Russian Government initiated early this year a process that it stated was aimed at restoring civilian authority and reintegrating the Chechen Republic into the political life of the Russian Federation. Senior Russian Government officials briefed us on this initiative and their planned way forward in late January. We welcomed the fact of the Russian effort to find a political solution, something that was not apparent one year ago. We indicated that we hoped to be able to support that effort. But we also voiced a number of concerns about the particulars, which raised questions in our mind about the prospects for success. To be credible, the process would need to reflect the will of the Chechen population and not be biased by allowing security forces from outside Chechnya to vote. We also have stressed that the Russian Government needs to provide internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Chechnya the possibility to vote without having to return to Chechnya.

The first step was holding a referendum on March 23 for a new Chechen constitution and on laws governing presidential and legislative elections. According to the official count, the turnout was over 80 percent of the eligible voters, and the constitution and electoral laws were approved by an overwhelming 96 percent majority of those voting. Security concerns prevented an effective assessment by outside observers. While we have seen some polling which suggested that a majority of those who turned out to vote on March 23 indeed supported the constitution and proposed laws, the percentages cited by the official count have struck many outside observers as high and have been treated with skepticism. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to see the outcome of the vote as an expression of the Chechen people's desire for a normal existence, free from the depredations of nearly a decade of war and lawlessness. We received no confirmed reports of violence on election day.

The Russian Government made a number of additional commitments to make this political process more acceptable to the Chechen people. These included an amnesty for rebels (as well as Russian soldiers) who committed certain types of offenses, compensation for destroyed property, and negotiation of a treaty on a formal division of authority between Moscow and Groznyy. We have consistently urged the Russian Government to fulfill the commitments it has made as part of this process.

The next critical step in this process will be the Chechen presidential election on October 5. Among the nine candidates registered in the race is Akhmad Kadyrov, appointed by President Putin in June 2000 to head Chechnya's interim administration. He has little opposition. The most serious challengers have either withdrawn from the race or been disqualified. For example, Ruslan Khasbulatov, formerly a nationally prominent politician, dropped out early, throwing his support behind the well-known businessman Khuseyn Dzhabrailov. Dzhabrailov first registered as a candidate, then withdrew. Last week Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the sole Chechen representative in the State Duma, took himself out of the race to accept a position as an advisor to President Putin on southern Russia issues. The following day, Malik Saydullayev, a Moscow-based businessman who heads the Moscow-backed Chechen State Council, was disqualified by the Chechen Supreme Court on a technicality.

Critics further charge that the conduct of the election will not be fair and that Kadyrov is using his control over security forces and local sources of information to his advantage. For example, the appointment of Kadyrov's campaign manager to head the Chechen Press and Nationalities Ministry leaves no independent media in Chechnya. As was the case with the referendum, the security situation is likely to preclude effective participation of international observers. We are concerned that the elections will lack sufficient credibility with the Chechens to advance the process toward a political settlement and could even set that process back.

To date, fulfillment of the Russian Government's commitments meant to accompany the voting has been incomplete at best. Fewer than 200 Chechen fighters had taken advantage of the amnesty by the September 1 deadline, while approximately 225 Russian soldiers and police had applied for amnesty. The Russian Government budgeted 14 billion rubles (approximately $450 million at current exchange rates) for some 39,000 families eligible for compensation for destroyed property, but many criticize this amount as insufficient given the degree of devastation in Chechnya. Payment is not scheduled to begin until September 25, and Russian officials have admitted that corruption has led to theft of funds allocated for Chechnya. Work on the treaty between Moscow and Groznyy has, by all appearances, not advanced beyond the most tentative discussion.

Given these developments, the United States Government is concerned that the political process the Russians began with the referendum last March is being slowly undermined.

Human Rights

The violation of human rights in Chechnya continues to be an issue of the gravest concern for the United States Government. Because Russian government restrictions as well as security considerations limit access for international human rights monitors and journalists, it is impossible to verify exact numbers of victims. Nevertheless credible human rights organizations -- Chechen, Russian, and international -- continue to report atrocities, disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings committed by Russian federal forces, by forces of the Kadyrov administration, by Chechen separatist forces, as well as by terrorist elements.

The extent of notorious "zachistki," large-scale sweeps of entire villages by Russian military rounding up Chechen males, is reported to have declined. This change is in line with the orders issued by the Russian military in 2002 intended to enforce discipline and curb abuses. Unfortunately, many reports indicate that the implementation of those orders by Russian military forces has been spotty. Night raids by what are alleged to be Russian forces, using military vehicles, persist. Human rights groups also report that similar raids are conducted by Kadyrov's forces. Chechens picked up in these raids disappear, most often permanently; in some cases corpses are later found. Detainees who return to their families commonly report the use of torture in interrogations and other mistreatment. While reliable numbers are impossible to obtain, credible reports estimate that disappearances continue on virtually a daily basis. We are also extremely concerned by reports that individuals seeking accountability for abuses have themselves become targets for reprisals by government forces.

We continue to raise our concerns with the Russian Government about the conduct of Russian forces and urge that Russia curb abuses and prosecute those who have committed them. The July court ruling that Colonel Yuri Budanov was guilty of murdering a Chechen woman was hailed as progress by human rights groups, though his 10-year sentence is lenient by Russian standards. We hope this ruling is indicative of a new effort to bring to account those who commit human rights abuses, but this remains to be seen.

We have repeatedly underscored to Moscow that return of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Ingushetiya or elsewhere must be strictly voluntary. There has been a slow but steady flow of IDPs returning to Chechnya. This is most likely due to both the promise of compensation for some families whose homes were destroyed, and to fears that, after the elections, the conditions for IDPs might only worsen, or that the camps will be completely closed.

The United States and OSCE partners worked very hard to renew the mandate of the OSCE Assistance Group in Chechnya at the end of 2002. We were disappointed that the Russian Government chose to block renewal of that mandate, despite our efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution. Although the Russian Government indicated its willingness to work with the OSCE in the future, it has indicated that the OSCE's role would not extend to direct involvement in--and/or monitoring of--the human rights situation in Chechnya.

Working with the Dutch government and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), we are pressing the Russian government to do more to seek the release of MSF Caucasus director Arjan Erkel, who was abducted in Dagestan in August 2002.

Humanitarian Assistance

Some 220,000 Chechens remain displaced because of the conflict in and outside Chechnya. Almost 80,000 of them remain in the neighboring Republic of Ingushetiya, living in tent camps, spontaneous settlements or with host families. Humanitarian organizations estimate that 140,000 people are displaced inside Chechnya.

The humanitarian needs arising from this long and painful conflict, which has left economic devastation in its wake, continue unabated. The United States Government contributes significant sums to various international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dispensing assistance to vulnerable portions of the population in Chechnya, as well as to Chechen IDPs in Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and other regions of Russia.

The United States is the largest single provider of aid to the North Caucasus. Overall, we have contributed $97.7 million since fiscal year 2000 to meet the humanitarian needs of the Chechen people in Chechnya and the surrounding areas of the North Caucasus. This includes $22.3 million in fiscal year 2003, an increase of over $5 million from the previous year. We expect the program funding to continue at comparable levels in the next fiscal year.

These USG assistance funds go to UN organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the ICRC, and international NGOs such as International Medical Corps, the International Rescue Committee, CARE and World Vision. Programs we finance help the needy in Chechnya and Chechen IDPs with food, shelter, water and sanitation, health care, children's education, legal protection and detention issues, mine awareness training, and local capacity building.

We maintain a Refugee Coordinator at our Embassy in Moscow to work with the international community and the Russian government in order to deliver humanitarian assistance and report on further needs. The Coordinator is the U.S. Government's point of contact for international and non-governmental organizations in the field. Monitoring the situation on the ground, the Coordinator identifies where U.S. assistance should be targeted to maximize its effectiveness in helping the displaced who need it most.

Terrorism

Terrorism, unfortunately, over the last sixteen months has increased significantly. In October last year, Chechen extremists took some 800 hostages at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, which led to the death of 129 hostages. In December, a suicide truck bombing destroyed the main government building in Groznyy, killing 72 and wounding over 200. In May, a car bombing in Znamenskoye, ordered by the Chechen terrorist commander Shamil Basayev, killed 60 people. This July two Chechen women with explosives strapped to them killed 18 at a rock concert outside Moscow. These terrorist acts are only among the most deadly of many that have occurred inside Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia, perpetrated by Chechen extremists.

No cause, no circumstances can justify these reprehensible actions. The increasing resort to terrorism by Chechen extremists has prompted condemnation and coordinated action by the Administration. On February 28, Secretary Powell designated three Chechen fighter organizations--all of which were connected with the October theater seizure--as terrorist organizations under Executive Order 13224, thereby blocking assets of these groups that are in the United States or held by U.S. persons, wherever located. Those organizations are the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion, the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment, and the Islamic International Brigade.

In June, the United Nations' 1267 Sanctions Committee included on its consolidated list of international terrorists Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, former president of separatist Chechnya. The Committee included Basayev on August 13.

We have repeatedly since the fall of 2001 called on the Chechen separatist leadership under Aslan Maskhadov to repudiate terrorism and distance itself from those who support terrorism. While they have distanced themselves from some of these recent attacks, on other occasions they have been silent or ambiguous. They need to condemn terrorism completely and unequivocally.

One positive development is that there has been a decrease of guerrilla activity based in the Pankisi Gorge beyond Chechnya's southern border in Georgia. This improvement in the security situation, and the defusing of the tensions between Russia and Georgia, came about in part thanks to our work with President Shevardnadze and assistance to the government of Georgia in training and equipping the Georgian military so that it could better police its hinterland.

The increasing resort to terrorism by Chechen extremists is of great concern and will set back the prospects for a peaceful settlement. We do not, however, share the Russian Government assessment that equates the separatist movement with terrorism. While we condemn all terrorist acts and the linkages of some separatists to international terrorist groups, we do not believe that Russia can address the conflict in Chechnya simply as a counter-terrorist operation. If any political settlement is to achieve a lasting peace, the Russian Government will need to include the Chechen people as broadly as possible in reaching that settlement, including those opposition elements willing to eschew violence.

Chechnya and U.S.-Russia Relations

The conflict in Chechnya and the human rights abuses associated with it pose one of the greatest challenges to our partnership with Russia. This Administration regularly reminds the Russian Government that we need to deal with that challenge in a forthright and practical manner.

We seek an immediate end to human rights violations as the only possible avenue to ending the vicious cycle of violence in the Caucasus. Furthermore, we stress to our Russian partners that, while we respect Russian territorial integrity, a political solution to the conflict that will be credible to the Chechen people must be found. Only then will the fighting end, the displaced persons feel safe to return home, and hope for a sustainable peace be possible.

Without such a political solution, we are not optimistic that any of the actors in Chechnya can effectively impose a cessation of all abuses by its forces. We are also concerned that the present political process in which Moscow has been engaged is not sufficiently legitimate in the eyes of the Chechen people to bring about an end to the violence or to resolve the Chechen crisis anytime in the foreseeable future.

When President Bush hosts President Putin at Camp David next week, I expect that these concerns will be among the most troubling that the two leaders will find on the U.S.-Russian agenda.