Chechen and U.S. State Department officials secretly discussed political solutions to conflicts in Chechnya at GW last week, a State Department spokesman said.
Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov and the Russian desk officer from the State Department met at GW because President George W. Bush was worried an open meeting between the two on government property would spur an international response, said Mark Toner, a Public Affairs Officer at the State Department.
“The meeting was held outside of the State Department in part because of Russian sensitivity to the issue,” Toner said.
Russia has been quashing Chechen separatists in the southern Russian region since the early ’90s, as the United States and other western governments have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to reach a political settlement. While Russia claims to control the area, Chechen forces continue daily shooting and bombing campaigns, according to reports.
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said GW officials had no prior knowledge of the Jan. 23 meeting and only became aware of it when they read a column by Fred Hiatt in Monday’s Washington Post that revealed the rendezvous.
“Something happens here, but sometimes they don’t want you to know it happens,” Trachtenberg said.
Toner said it was not necessarily meant to be a secret meeting but that the current international situation required discreetness.
“We have met with (Akhmadov) three other times. He is just one of a great number of contacts we have that are involved in the Chechnya dispute,” Toner said. “This meeting was part of (the State Department’s) overall strategy to promote a dialogue and help create a political solution.”
In his column, Hiatt said that the meeting was kept low-key because the State Department did not want to hurt its improved post-Sept. 11 relations with Russia. Also, he wrote, possible ties of some Chechen rebels to Islamic extremists could have posed a danger.
Toner disputes these claims.
“Many pundits have been saying that we have been taking a more pro-Russian stance towards the Chechen situation since September 11, but that is not necessarily true,” Toner said. “Although there might be bad elements of Chechnya with ties to extremists, we do not see (Akhmadov) as having any such ties.”
This is not the first time such a meeting has taken place on GW’s campus.
“Diplomats have used GW as a meeting place before- it is just usually with our knowledge of the event,” Trachtenberg said.
He said GW can act as the perfect neutral meeting ground for diplomats who do not want the world to know they are meeting because of disputes.
“Sometimes ambassadors will call up and ask for a meeting at a GW event, so I might send them both tickets to a GW basketball game so they can ‘run into each other,'” Trachtenberg said.
He cited an example in which he arranged a meeting between the diplomats of Greece and Turkey, two countries that have diplomatic differences. He said after the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, GW participated in a relief fundraising event where ambassadors from the countries met.
When asked if it bothered him to have such important meetings happen on campus without his knowledge, Trachtenberg said, “Of course I would like to know about these things, but it doesn’t bother me.
“If the meeting is likely to make a difference and help the world create peace and ease suffering,” he continued, “then it is a welcome and modest contribution by our university.”