Alexander Vershbow: The United States does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the separatist Chechen government


Interfax

Interfax News Agency questions to Ambassador Vershbow

Mr. Ambassador, the U.S. government has been blamed by some in the Russian media and on diplomatic level as well for maintaining a double standard policy in the fight against terrorism, particularly in the context of granting political asylum to Chechen separatist envoy Akhmadov. How do YOU explain the U.S. position?

First of all, let me say that there was and continues to be a truly enormous outpouring of sympathy and solidarity on the part of American citizens for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Russia. We at the Embassy have been inundated by calls from ordinary Americans asking how they can help. Just this last week, five American Congressmen took time from important work to come to Russia in order to present their constituents' deepest condolences to the people of Beslan, North Ossetia, and Russia. It really is true, as President Bush has said, that Americans stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Russia in the fight against terrorism. All civilized nations are in this struggle together, and all must fight the murderers.

This is not only a matter of policy - it is because Americans have themselves suffered from and continue to worry about terrorism that we so strongly identify with Russians worries today.

On a government level, we have also taken - and continue to take -- very concrete actions to help counter the terrorist threat. Most importantly, we have designated several organizations that have known ties to Chechen rebel groups on our list of those financing terrorism. One of these organizations is Shamil Basayev's group that claimed responsibility for the airplane bombings and the Beslan school seizure. This means that we are pressing governments all over the world to freeze their assets, which is helping fight terrorism by drying up the funding for those who support it. Also of great importance is the extensive sharing of intelligence information on terrorism by our two governments. And we have worked closely with Russia's neighbors in the South Caucasus, in particular Georgia and Azerbaijan, to cut off the supply of weapons and funds from abroad to Chechen terrorists.

As for political asylum cases, it is essential to understand that in the US such matters are exclusively decisions for immigration judges and courts, and the courts in the US are independent both in law and in fact. As Secretary Powell has stated, these decisions are not the judgments of the State Department or the President and are not in any way a statement of U.S. foreign policy.

Under what conditions could the U.S. satisfy Russia's request for Akhmadov's extradition?

In general, the United States does not extradite in the absence of an extradition treaty. However, to the extent that your question is about immigration proceedings, in the United States, such matters rest with immigration judges and courts. I cannot comment on specific asylum cases or disclose asylum decisions because U.S. law protects the asylum applicants in this regard. Asylum is granted to applicants who demonstrate, to the satisfaction of immigration officers and judges, a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and there are no grounds for finding the applicant otherwise inadmissible.

How does the American side envision a solution to the Chechen crisis?

It is essential to stress, first of all, that the United States supports the territorial integrity of Russia and does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the separatist Chechen government. At the same time, it is only common sense that a stable and durable peace in Chechnya will eventually require a solution that has a solid political and socio-economic basis. And it is also obvious that a solution will only be durable if it is acceptable to the people of Chechnya.

American officials have pressed for contacts with representatives of moderate Chechen separatists. What representatives could be mentioned in this context, and have Maskhadov and his closest allies been included in this list?

We have been clear: We have never suggested that either we or the Russian government should talk to or deal with terrorists. Secretary Powell has underscored this point repeatedly during the past week.

We have never met with persons known to us to have terrorist links, nor will we. We have not urged the Russian government to negotiate with Maskhadov. As Secretary Powell has said, the Russian government itself has acknowledged the need to find a durable political solution to the conflict.

Is the American side, including its security services, ready to provide assistance for Basayev's and Maskhadov's capture, information for which Russian authorities have announced a reward of 10 million dollars?

The United States and Russia have a close working relationship in the context of the global war on terrorism. That cooperation includes extensive information sharing about terrorist threats and working to curb the financial flows to terrorists and terrorist networks.

Official Moscow has expressed bewilderment with U.S. criticism of measures to strengthen the fight against terrorism taken after a series of terrorist attacks in Russia. Could you please explain this U.S. position? Do you have an explanation of these measures from the Russian side?

We should distinguish between views expressed by the US government and those expressed by private and concerned American citizens.

There are a number of different views on Chechnya expressed by private Americans, just as there are different views here in Russia about how to fight terrorism. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government, but we believe that such a robust public debate about policy is healthy. In the long term, policy that is subjected to strong public review is better grounded in public support than it would otherwise be.

Concerning the fight against terrorism, in particular, citizens want to know that their government has found a proper balance between taking necessary security measures and maintaining a democratic process. President Bush stated that as governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy.

Secretary Powell recently elaborated that we feel it is important to say to our Russian friends that as you deal with this kind of terrorist threat you have to be careful that you don't do it in a way that starts to undercut democratic institutions or keeps you from building the kinds of democratic institutions which we believe are in the long-term interests of the Russian Federation and which the Russian people want.