Russia Draws Diplomatic Fire in Chechnya

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The war in Chechnya is boosting new prime minister Vladimir Putin's domestic political standing, but foreign governments are less impressed. Russian forces Friday continued to pound Chechen villages -— for the benefit of a live TV audience for the first time in Russian history — and Western journalists reported that some 50 refugees had been killed in a Russian rocket attack on a convoy heading for the border. But U.N. moves to send a humanitarian team to assess the needs of refugees from the conflict, and President Clinton's exhortation to the two sides to "stop fighting and start talking," signaled that Moscow may be unable to keep what it considers a domestic matter from becoming an international concern. "Russian foreign policy recognizes the U.N. as the final arbiter of international justice, and a U.N. mission to assess the needs of refugees that makes it harder for Moscow to control the way the conflict is presented internationally," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "Because Chechnya is its sovereign territory, Moscow insists that there are no refugees in Chechnya, only internally displaced people."

Of more immediate concern to Moscow, though, is the fact that the Chechnya issue is now beginning to dominate its discussions with Western leaders. Last week, it took over the agenda of a meeting between Putin and the European Union, which had been scheduled to discuss economic assistance. And now Washington is stepping up its criticism, urging Russia to solve its conflict with Chechnya through dialogue. "Chechnya threatens to displace Russia's preferred concerns at the top of the agenda in its dealings with the West," says Meier. Even more alarming for the Kremlin is the fact that Washington is casting the conflict in terms quite different from Russia's. While Moscow describes it simply as a "police action against terrorism," President Clinton Thursday referred to Chechnya as instance of ethnic conflict and urged Russia to seek a negotiated solution. So while Putin may be winning the war at home, he's in increasing danger of losing it abroad.