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Boston Globe
May 31, 2003
Chechnya discussion not seen on agenda for Bush, Putin
By John Donnelly and David Filipov, Globe Staff

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin hold their mini-summit tomorrow, they are expected to talk about Iraq, Iran, and global terrorism. But to the dismay of some Bush administration officials one subject will likely get little attention: Russia's war in Chechnya.

Despite the growing death toll in the province and the war's great economic drain on Russia, the White House appears to have decided that Putin has made a forceful argument that his war against Chechnya's Islamic rebels is similar to the US campaign against terror groups.

And with tens of thousands of US troops facing daily attacks and frequently firing on civilians in Iraq, the White House is not planning on bringing up the Chechnya matter at tomorrow's meeting, where Putin and Bush will be looking to patch up their rift over the war to oust Saddam Hussein, US officials said.

''I'll be interested to see if the word `Chechnya' is even uttered by President Bush in St. Petersburg,'' said Michael McFaul, a Russia specialist at Stanford University who has advised the administration. ''My guess is he won't even say it.''

Some administration officials have argued unsuccessfully in recent weeks for Bush to press Putin to rein in his military, which is accused of rampant rights abuses in the Chechen region, and to hold peace talks with rebel leaders, something the Russian president has vowed he won't do.

US and Russian observers are concerned that the conflict in Chechnya, which has raged for seven of the last 10 years and has killed as many as 25,000 Russian soldiers and many more civilians, could become a forgotten war. This is despite a surge in deadly suicide attacks by the rebels and violent summary reprisals by Russian troops that have made Chechnya one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Yesterday, an explosion tore through a bus carrying workers to Russia's main military base in Chechnya, killing three people and wounding eight.

''It continues to be a source of trouble for Russia and for the region,'' said one Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''It's in everyone's interest to try to bring about a sustainable end to the fighting.''

But the official, along with two other US foreign policy specialists in the administration who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said their arguments have gone nowhere in the White House. They said that even nonconfrontational approaches have been dismissed by Bush's senior policy advisers, such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a scholar of the former Soviet Union.

Earlier this month, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, commenting on a phone conversation between Bush and Putin, said Bush told Putin that ''the United States and Russia face a common threat from terrorism.'' After a terror attack in Chechnya earlier this month that killed more than 50 people, Fleischer issued a statement condemning the attack and urging a ''political settlement of the Chechnya conflict that respects Russia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, stops the violence, and ends human rights violations.''

Specialists on the region say that while the Chechen war may not appear on the list of talking points for Bush and Putin, there are many officials in the Bush administration -- particularly within the State Department -- hoping to raise the profile of the war.

''Ironically, there are loads of people at the State Department that haven't forgotten this at all,'' said Fiona Hill, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. ''They can't get the attention of the people at the top. It's understandable in some way because of the number of competing issues on the agenda.''

Still, said Hill and other analysts, the magnitude of the war is hard to overlook. Some Russian analysts believe the war costs $2 billion a year. A group comprising mothers of soldiers believes that 11,000 soldiers, more than twice the official death toll, have died in the second part of the war, which began in 1999. A dozen die each week. According to recently released official statistics, 1,132 civilians were killed in Chechnya in 2002, but rights groups and some analysts believe the death toll is many times higher.

Putin, who came to power promising to ''waste the terrorists'' wherever they are, hopes to grant Chechnya limited autonomy and put pro-Moscow Chechen paramilitary police in charge of fighting the rebels. Chechens in a March referendum approved a constitution that affirms the region's status as a Russian province. Putin has offered amnesty to most rebel fighters who lay down their arms by August 1 and has promised that Chechens ''will lead normal, human lives.''

But life in Chechnya is anything but normal. Usam Baisayev of the Russian rights watchdog group Memorial said ''kidnapping and summary executions'' by federal troops is ''the same problem for Chechnya today that it was before the referendum.''

Two suicide bombs earlier this month killed more than 70 people in Chechnya. Shamil Basayev, a leading rebel commander, claimed responsibility. Kremlin critics say military atrocities are making it easier for the rebels to find people willing to die for their cause.

The Kremlin has long claimed that Chechnya's separatist movement, which defeated Russian troops in a 1994-1996 war, has been taken over by foreign-based extremist groups such as Al Qaeda. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that argument has helped mute US criticisms of Russian rights abuses.

But Hill said that by dropping Chechnya from the agenda now, ''it speaks badly for the United States and the values it purportedly stands for.''

Filipov reported from Moscow; Donnelly reported from Washington.

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