Russia surfs antiterrorist wave

Moscow offers support to US-led coalition, but asks West to drop criticism of its conflict in Chechnya.

As Russia falls into stride alongside the United States in its campaign to root out terrorists, the Kremlin is swiftly repackaging many of its own longstanding geopolitical goals to give them an antiterrorist hue - and soften Western criticism.

For several years, Moscow has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels in the rugged Pankisi Gorge, near the border with Chechnya. Georgia retorts that the Kremlin is trying to coerce it into reversing a planned withdrawal of Russian troops, who have been based in the republic since Soviet times. Until now, Western backing for the NATO-aspiring Georgia has held Russia at bay.

But now Russia has a whole new language to deploy: the global battle against terrorism. Last week, Moscow issued a diplomatic memo, using some of the strongest language yet in pressuring Georgia to clean out "bases of international terrorism" in the Pankisi Gorge. "It is high time for Georgia to join, not in words but in deeds, the common front of civilized states against international terrorism," the note said.

The new hard line is no coincidence, experts say. "The changed atmosphere in the world enables Russia to be politically tougher with Georgia than in the past," says Boris Shmelyov, director of the Center for Comparative Political Studies in Moscow. "Georgia has to make some difficult choices, just like all of us."

What Russia stands to gain

Meanwhile, Moscow is demanding that the West drop all criticism of its bloody, decade-long campaign to crush a secessionist rebellion in Chechnya, on the grounds that it is just another battlefront in the common struggle for civilization.

"The war on terrorism has been Russia's priority for years," says Yevgeny Kozhokhin, director of the government-funded Institute of Strategic Research in Moscow. "Now that the US sees what we've been been facing, perhaps they'll understand us better.

"The Americans should drop their double standards," Mr. Kozhokhin adds. "A terrorist is a terrorist, whether he kills Russians or Americans."

Officially, Russia has set no conditions for joining the US-led campaign to punish the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, thought to be hiding in Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin on Monday declared that Russia will share intelligence with the US, open Russian air corridors for "humanitarian supplies" to the war zone, agree to American use of former Soviet military bases in Central Asia, and perhaps even take on a more active role as the operation develops.

Mr. Putin also used his speech to demand that rebels disarm within 72 hours - in an attempt, some speculate, to avoid engaging in a new conflict before the Chechen one is settled. "In just 72 hours, Russia will begin to take unprecedented actions in Chechnya without looking over its shoulder at world opinion," remarked the business daily Kommersant.

But not far beneath the surface efforts of cooperation with the US, the Russians are making clear they expect American attitudes on issues ranging from missile defense to NATO expansion to be transformed in exchange for Russian help in the war on terrorism.

"We hope the Americans will understand how divisive some of their policies have been," says Konstantin Kosachov, deputy chair of the Duma's foreign affairs committee. "The US insistence on building an antimissile shield was no help in preventing a terrorist attack, yet it did alienate several important partners, including Russia, who are needed if the world terrorist threat is to be contained."

Mr. Kosachov says Russia could extend its support, even to direct military participation in operations against terrorist bases in Afghanistan, if the US offers incentives.

"If the Americans want us to just obey orders while they run the show, no big international coalition will work," he says. "But genuine partnership, legally grounded through mandates of the United Nations Security Council - that could be a different story."

The most difficult challenge may be to resist Russian demands that the West mute its criticisms of Russian human rights violations in Chechnya and treat that war as part of the common global struggle against terrorists.

Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic on Russia's southern flank, declared independence as the USSR was breaking up in 1991. Russia invaded three years later, only to be defeated by Chechen fighters in a savage, 20-month war that ended in a vague armistice agreement.

Caution in drawing parallels

Russia claims - with considerable evidence - that following the first war, Chechnya degenerated into a lawless "bandit state" that took in extremists from around the Muslim world and exported Islamic extremism to neighboring regions of Russia.

After a string of apartment bombings that killed 300 Russians in 1999 - which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen rebels but never conclusively proved - Russian troops invaded Chechnya again. This time, they advanced across the tiny republic behind a screen of heavy weapons fire that human rights monitors say killed thousands of civilians and left a quarter million homeless.

The Kremlin says at least 400 Afghan-trained "mercenaries" - directly linked to prime terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden - are fighting with Chechen rebels against Russian forces.

"The terrorist connections in Chechnya have long been proven," says Mr. Shmelyov. "This is the moment of truth for the West. We want to hear them clearly define their attitude toward Chechen terrorism."

But critics caution against oversimplifying the conflict just because Russia and the US are moving closer in the fight against common terrorist threats.

"Things like this should be defined carefully, and handled with restraint and intelligence," says Sergei Grigoryants, head of the Glasnost Foundation, a Moscow-based human rights watchdog. "There may be terrorists in Chechnya, but to say the 10-year-old Chechen rebellion is an expression of Islamic terrorism is fundamentally wrong. If we're not wise ..., the world will go backwards instead of moving forward toward greater justice for all."

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