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Experts: West Can Play Role in Solving Chechen Conflict - 2004-10-15

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been able to either defeat the Chechen separatists or find a political solution to the conflict.

Four years ago, Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia promising to bring order to the North Caucasus region and defeat the Chechen separatists there in two weeks. As Prime Minister in the previous government, Mr. Putin sent troops to Chechnya in 1999. They are still there today.

Increasingly, Chechen extremists have turned to terrorism in their fight against Russian authorities. They have placed bombs in Russian cities, taken hostages in a Moscow theater and, just last month, attacked a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. After a three-day stand-off, more than 330 people were killed, half of them children, as Russian forces battled Chechen separatists.

President Putin says the Chechen issue is an internal Russian problem. At the same time, he places Russia's fight against Chechen separatists in the context of the global war on terrorism.

Thomas de Waal is an expert on the Caucasus and has written extensively on Chechnya. He is the Caucasus Editor at London's Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He sees a fundamental paradox in President Putin's position.

"The Russians constantly say this is a front in the international war on terror and the West needs to support us on this, and yet they do not, so far at least, accept that there needs to be, in order to defeat what they call an international problem, there needs to be some kind of international involvement in Chechnya, purely on the practical level. If the Russians have been fighting a second war in Chechnya for five years, and still things like Beslan can happen, this shows that the Russian policy has not been working, and they need help," he said.

Experts say President Putin's policy toward the Chechens has been uncompromising: no negotiations with terrorists. But the experts point out not all Chechen separatists are terrorists, and Mr. Putin must begin negotiations with those groups that have condemned the terrorist attacks. Otherwise, the war will go on.

Glen Howard, President of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC research organization specializing in Russia and the Caucasus, says the United States has a role to play.

"The United States has to make it clear to President Putin that the solution to Chechnya is not by further crackdowns and further maneuvers by the Russian military in cleansing operations in Chechnya," he said. "They have to develop a 'hearts and minds' policy for the people of Chechnya and get them to support some type of effort that brings in those people with the guns. Until you sit down at the table and negotiate and talk to the people with the guns, you're not going to have peace in Chechnya. Otherwise, this war will drag on for another ten years and other parts of the Caucasus would be dragged down with it and there will be further tragedies in Russia. We have to keep pushing the idea for peace and the idea for negotiations: that is the only hope. The only other option now is for continued tragedies and suffering of both the Chechen people and Russians."

U.S. administration officials have been reluctant to talk publicly about Mr. Putin's policy on Chechnya. But they have consistently called on the Russian leader to find a political , rather than military, solution to the Chechen conflict.

Michael McFaul, Russia expert with the Hoover Institution (Washington DC office) says the United States must be a more active player in helping Russia resolve the Chechen issue. He points to the role Washington played in brokering a peace accord in Northern Ireland.

"We went out of our way to help our allies in Great Britain and Ireland reach a more peaceful situation in Northern Ireland," he said. "By the way, this is one of our closest allies and they didn't go on and on about how this was an internal matter for Great Britain and the United states should play no role. On the contrary, they welcomed the role the United States played. But I don't see a moment like that opening any time in the near future."

Peter Reddaway, Russia expert at George Washington University, also believes that the United States must offer its services to Moscow to get negotiations going.

"Quietly, privately tell Mr. Putin that if he wants to remain part of the G-8 process, that he has got to seriously address the Chechnya problem and that the G-7 would be happy to help him with that. That might very well be the most powerful, single type of leverage that the U.S. has, if it could only develop the will to use it," he said.

The G-8 is the group of leading industrialized countries and Russia. The G-7 is the group of leading industrialized countries without Russia.

Experts say in the final analysis, solving the Chechnya conflict comes down to a matter of political will. On the one hand, President Putin must change his policy and be open to talks with Chechen separatists. On the other hand, the United States and the West must get more involved in helping find a political solution.