George Bush: "The fate of the people of Chechnya is a matter of deep concern to the people of America"
The very first official event on Russian soil to have the participation of U.S. President George Bush, who had arrived in Petersburg to take part in the G8 summit, was his meeting with representatives of Russian civil society. On July 14 activists of the most varying orientations - from human rights to ecology - told Bush about Russia’s problems. The subject of Chechnya also came up at the meeting, were it was discussed by the director of the “Demos” human rights centre, Tatyana Lokshina. Timur Aliyev reports.
-Tanya, how did you come to be in such company? How were the participants selected for this meeting with Bush?
On July 7 I got a phone call from the American Embassy asking me what I was doing on the 14th. Tired after the "Citizens’ G8", I said I going to the Caucasus. "If you can revise your plans, George Bush would like to meet you,” they told me. "What kind of meeting will it be?" I asked. "It will be a round table with young activists of civil society,” they replied. “We’ve already held one in Turkey." It’s true that they immediately qualified this by saying that the representatives of Russian authorities who were organizing the G8 Summit were opposed to the plan. Already a month before the summit, Russian “sherpa” Igor Shuvalov had said that the Russian leadership would not want its partners to hold meetings of this kind within the framework of the G8.
As a result I only went to Chechnya for a week and then, interrupting my visit, left for St Petersburg.
- Who else was at this round table?
Only 15-20 people. Mainly, apart from Yasina, Chestin and myself, they were beneficiaries of USAID grant programs or participants in IREX education programs. Masha Gaidar from the youth movements was there, there was a representative of the St. Petersburg organization "Doctors to Children", Svetlana from “Prospect” (they help disabled people to obtain education), two young regional lads from the “Voice” Association for the defence of the rights of electors, Ivan Pavlov from the Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information, and some others.
- And from the Americans, who was present?
Officially - only George Bush and the US ambassador to Russia, William Burns. They were seated in the presidium. Unofficially, but de facto, there were Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Barry Lowenkrohn, Bush’s adviser on Russia and the Caucasus Tom Graham, and the US President’s press secretary. They sat against the wall. Rice was directly behind me.
- Were there any Russian officials?
No, there weren’t. Only people from NGOs.
-What was the meeting like?
We waited for Bush for about one and a half hours. During that time we were told about the "rules of etiquette" in the presence of the President of the USA – how to greet him and how to get up.
Then Bush entered the room, loping along with a sort of springy gait, and he said: "Hello. I’m George Bush."
We sat down at the U-shaped table, Bush in the centre, Irina Yasina on his left and the ambassador on his right. And Bush said he was glad to see young people here who to him looked like children, that the future of Russian democracy depended on young people, that it was very important for him to hear us before his private meeting with Putin.
Then Bush said that in this connection he had to stress that Putin was his friend, and that he respected him, since Putin had two daughters and that he, Bush, also had two daughters of 24, and that he understood it was very important for Putin that everything should be okay in the family, and consequently that everything should be okay in Russia too.
After that, Irina Yasina, director of the charity "Open Russia", was asked to speak first. She said that when she was young, perestroika had started, and she had had many hopes, but 21 years had passed and now democratic institutions were falling apart, there was no freedom in the business world or the justice system. Then she went on to talk about Khodorkovsky and Svetlana Bakhmina, said that with the introduction of the new law on non-profit organizations all the groups that had not yet been closed down would be closed down, and she asked for help. And when she mentioned the fact that after the closure of "Open Russia" they now called themselves "’Closed’ Open Russia ", Bush laughed for a long time.
- When you did start to talk about Chechnya?
After the discussion moved to the new law on non-profit organizations, Bush himself turned to me and asked me what I thought about it. I replied that it was a real problem, that the Rosregistratsiya officials were saying in private conversations that organizations that don’t deal with political matters will not he closed down, that the criteria had been eroded and that this affected all the people, for example, who were now in this room.
Then Bush asked - "Who are you, and what do you do?" A bit angry now about the talk of “children”, I replied "I’m so-and-so, I do this and that, I’ve just arrived from the Chechen Republic". "Straight from Chechnya?" – Bush asked in astonishment. "No, I changed trains in Moscow", I said. "I see," he said.
Then I handed him an envelope containing two photos I’d earlier printed out from the Memorial website, and opened it One of the photographs was of Rigakhoy, showing the corpses of children and one small boy running against the background of a ruined house. The other showed the view from a hill, horses, a kind of Chechen Switzerland. I explained to Bush - "You said a lot about children, well, here is a Chechen mountain farm, In 2004 it was bombed, six children and their mother were killed, and no one has been punished for it."
I went on to say: "I am often asked why I go there. But I reply that as a Christian and as a Russian I can’t look at this calmly." And to him: "I think that you as a Christian will also not be indifferent.”
Then I passed on to the situation in general: "Terrorism is a huge problem and it must be fought. But sometimes the side effects of counter-terrorist measures are counter-productive. I don’t know how that balance is kept in Iraq, there’s simply no information, but in the Caucasus and in Chechnya – it’s a big negative. In Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where there has been no war, the actions of the law enforcement agencies have provoked an increase in terrorism.".
-And what was Bush's reply?
He nodded, wrote something in his notebook, said he agreed that in Russia there's a problem with security. But you must understand that in Iraq we’re supporting democracy. And he went on - "Recently the US Supreme Court took a decision on Guantanamo Bay and we will carry out that decision – a law is a law".
I turned to him again: "The new generation of terrorists in Chechnya is motivated not by separatism or radical Islam, but by personal revenge. And although you are partners with Russia in the war against terror, these facts need to be analysed too."
Bush’s reply was: "My friend Vladimir and I are going to discuss all these problems." And he continued: "The fate of the people of Chechnya is a matter of deep concern to the people of America. The United States are ready to help, taking into consideration the Chechen people’s sufferings,” and so on.
-What happened then?
Bush spent several minutes talking to each person. Of course, it was his conversation with Irina Yasina that lasted longest - some fifteen minutes – she was first, after all. But the others too were able to say to him what they wanted. For the last five minutes the journalists who had been accredited for the event were let into the room, and Bush told them he was happy.
- Tanya, what do you think, did this meeting produce any result? Was it written about in the newspapers?
The information output was completely “wild”. During that day the entire Western press wrote about nothing else. I left the room at 5.30 and gave my story over the telephone until 9.30 – until I got on the plane. Two of the details were written about – the photos I had shown and Bush’s statement about the American people’s concern.