By John J. Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor
The United States Helsinki Commission conducted a hearing on the latest developments in the conflict in Chechnya on May 9, 2002. Commissioner Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) chaired the hearing. Commissioners Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) also participated.
Testifying before the Commission were Steven Pifer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; Ms. Aset Chadaeva, a pediatric nurse and former resident of Chechnya; Andrei Babitsky, Radio Liberty correspondent and author of Undesirable Witness; and Anatol Lieven, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“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,” testified Secretary Pifer. He asserted that the issue of Chechnya has been raised frequently by U.S. government officials with their counterparts, and President George W. Bush discussed it with President Vladimir Putin last November. “We anticipate it will come up at the summit in Moscow and St. Petersburg in two weeks,” Pifer said.
“We seek a political settlement that will end the fighting, promote reconciliation, and recognize the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation [as well as] accountability for human rights abuses committed by all sides, and unimpeded access to the displaced by humanitarian organizations,” Pifer elaborated.
Referring to U.S. concern about links of some Chechen forces with international terrorist groups, Secretary Pifer stated that the United States Government has called on Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and other moderate Chechens to disassociate themselves from terrorists. On this point, Pifer noted the United States Government’s efforts to train and equip Georgian military units to deal with terrorist elements in the Pankisi Gorge adjacent to Chechnya’s southern border.
Pifer testified that the United States has been the largest single provider of humanitarian aid to the North Caucasus. Since 1999 the U.S. Government has contributed more than 30 million dollars to relieve war-related suffering in the region.
Ms. Chadaeva presented gripping testimony based on her work as a nurse in the Chechen town of Aldi on February 5, 2000, when Russian contract soldiers conducted a “cleansing operation” that left sixty civilians dead.
“They threw grenades into basements where people were hiding,” Chadaeva said. “They executed unarmed men, women, old people and children. The victims ranged in age from a one-year-old baby to an eighty-two-year-old woman. They killed a woman who was eight months pregnant and her one-year-old son. All my patients who had been wounded during the bombings, who were getting well, were killed and their bodies burned.”
Asked if the soldiers intended to kill their victims or if the casualties were the result of random grenades, Chadaeva replied, “these people were killed by being shot in the head…the soldiers knew exactly whom they were killing.”
Concluding her description of wanton killing of Chechen civilians by Russian forces, Ms. Chadaeva asked “Is it really necessary to have millions of victims to call such behavior genocide? Isn’t the death of 100,000 Chechens since 1994 in the two Russian-Chechen wars sufficient reason for effective international action to end the conflict and the agony of the Chechen people?”
Andrei Babitsky briefly described the fate of people killed for unknown reasons in Chechnya their bodies found bearing signs of torture. They were killed, he said, “as part of the anarchy and arbitrary rule which is now the order of the day in Chechnya.”
The Radio Liberty correspondent then described the efforts made by Russian authorities, to prevent information about the war, especially human rights violations and atrocities against non-combatants, from reaching the general public. Moscow had succeeded in creating a “ghetto” of the war zone, he asserted, “shut off from the sight and influence of the outside world.”
The main issue, Babitsky contended, is not how individual Russian journalists view the war. Most reporters agree with the official position that Moscow is waging an “anti-terrorist” and “anti-separatist” operation. “The main issue is that the Russian military and the Kremlin have banned reports on killings, torture and kidnaping of civilians by the Russian military,” Babitsky said. “The lack of information about Chechnya is one of the most effective ways to create a situation in which killers and kidnappers in epaulets can operate without legal accountability.”
Regarding assertions by Moscow of Chechen involvement with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Babitsky noted that during a recent visit to Afghanistan, neither he nor other Russian journalists found any Chechen fighters, despite a concerted search.
Anatol Lieven observed that the United States now recognizes the presence of international Islamic militant forces in Chechnya and Georgia, whereas earlier, “this was downplayed or even ignored altogether by wide sections of U.S. officialdom, the media and public opinion.”
The prevention or elimination of lawless areas and quasi-states in the Muslim world – of which Chechnya between 1996 and 1999 was one – is now recognized as a vital U.S. national interest, since such areas can all too easily become safe havens for Al Qaeda or allied groups,” Lieven continued.
Nevertheless, Lieven stated, “while extremists and terrorists have established a strong presence in Chechnya, they have been able to do so because of the legitimate grievances and the great suffering of the Chechen people…The initial appearance of these forces – as in Afghanistan – was due to the brutal Russian military intervention of 1994-96; and the way in which they were able to carve out a powerful position for themselves in 1996-99 owed an enormous amount to the destruction, brutalization, and radicalization left behind by that war.”
Summing up, Lieven suggested that U.S. goals should be the destruction or exclusion of the radicals followed by a sharp reduction of the Russian military presence, free elections for a Chechen administration, and the restoration of autonomy.
However, he concluded, “before it can embark on any such path the U.S. needs to think very seriously about the correct balance between sympathy for Chechen suffering, respect for Russian security and sovereignty, and America’s own vital interests in this region, in the context of the wider war against terrorism.”
An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses are located on the Helsinki Commission’s Internet web site.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.