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Putin's Chechen Strongman an Unwelcome Guest in the U.S.

The Russian president includes Akhmad Kadyrov in his U.N. entourage, irking the White House just before a summit with Bush.

September 26, 2003|Sonni Efron and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — On the eve of President Bush's summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, a diplomatic tiff over a member of the Russian delegation to the United Nations has spotlighted strains in the two countries' relationship over the separatist republic of Chechnya.

Washington was dismayed to learn that Putin had brought along the Kremlin's handpicked candidate for the Chechen presidency, whose forces are accused of human rights abuses and election violence, two U.S. officials confirmed Thursday.

The disclosure came as influential lawmakers and human rights advocates were pressuring Bush to bring up violations in Chechnya with Putin, in public and in private. American officials also are more bluntly arguing that Russian behavior in Chechnya is radicalizing the predominantly Muslim population and creating a security threat for both the U.S. and Russia.

Meanwhile, the relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) is urging Bush to press Putin to secure the release of Dutch aid worker Arjan Erkel, who was abducted near the Chechen border more than a year ago, allegedly while security officers looked on.

Bush and Putin are expected to spend most of the two-day summit that begins this afternoon discussing the reconstruction of Iraq, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and other issues. Administration officials said Bush may raise the Erkel case in private but was unlikely to do so in public.

But the diplomatic discomfort over Putin's entourage shows how Chechnya, long a back-burner irritant in U.S.-Russian ties, has the potential to flare into a more serious problem despite desires to keep the warming relationship on track.

The Chechen official is Akhmad Kadyrov, whom Putin appointed in June 2000 as interim leader of Chechnya. Backed by Moscow, Kadyrov is one of seven candidates left in the highly controversial Chechen presidential election slated for Oct. 5. His strongest challengers have been pushed out.

Kadyrov's security force has swelled in recent months to 1,500 3,000 armed men, according to the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization. His security force also is believed to be the main supplier of vodka to Russian military forces.

Russian human rights groups report that gunmen have attacked and intimidated Kadyrov's opponents and their supporters and families. On Sept. 9, gunmen driving cars bearing Kadyrov's portrait shot and killed the son of a top campaign official for an opposition candidate, then shot their way into the official's home, according to the Moscow Helsinki Group.

"I don't want to call it an election," said Sarah Mendelson, a specialist in Russian elections at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There are international standards for elections," none of which has been met, she said.

"There's an ongoing war, there is no freedom of movement, conditions are not safe for voters to go to the polls, conditions for free and fair campaigning don't exist," Mendelson said.

Last week, Steven Pifer, a senior State Department official, testified before Congress that "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 conflict in Chechnya and the human rights abuses ... pose one of the greatest challenges to our partnership with Russia," Pifer added.

Kadyrov was issued a visa to the United Nations as a member of Putin's delegation. But two officials said the State Department had discouraged him from coming to Washington.

"If he's coming here, he's not going to meet with anybody in this building," a third State Department official said Thursday.

Russian Embassy spokesman Yevgeny Khorishko said Kadyrov would arrive in Washington with Putin today but that it was not clear whether he would be in Putin's delegation to the meeting at Camp David. A Bush administration official, however, said the matter was closed. "He is not going to Camp David," he said curtly.

Khorishko said the Russians found it incomprehensible that the U.S. had met with what he called Chechen guerrillas and terrorists but had not requested meetings with Kadyrov.

The U.S. believes that the Russians had a chance to hold a true democratic election in Chechnya, rid themselves of Kadyrov and restore stability but that Moscow appears to have squandered that opportunity, an administration official said.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) sent a letter to Bush urging him to push Putin on human rights, saying that though Chechen terrorism is a serious problem, Moscow's indiscriminate use of force will make it worse.

"This is not beating up on the Russians," a senior Senate aide said. "This is, you've got to speak the truth to your friends."

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