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Grant Chechnya 'special status,' Gorbachev says

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

NEW YORK — President Vladimir Putin should grant Chechnya special status within Russia to end a decade-long insurgency, although some Western countries would like to see Moscow trapped in the "Chechen quagmire" for years, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said on Monday.

Gorbachev, a Nobel Peace prize winner who paved the way for communism's downfall and the Soviet Union's dissolution, also said there was an important lesson from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: Don't act unilaterally.

"The crisis in Iraq has been a lesson, and I believe that lesson has been learned by both the United States and all of us," the 73-year-old said at a breakfast attended by journalists. "That lesson is that unilateral action is really not the way to go, is really not the way forward."

Looking at Russia's most immediate crisis, Gorbachev said the solution in separatist Chechnya must be political.

Russia has twice invaded largely Muslim Chechnya on Russia's southern rim, fighting a 1994-96 war to end a self-declared independence and a second war starting in 1999 after apartment bombings that Russia blamed on Chechen terrorists.

The second war is still raging, and Putin classifies it as part of the global war on terror. But at the same time, Putin is trying to make Chechnya self-governing with a native leadership.

Gorbachev, who as Soviet leader ended a decade-long war in Afghanistan by pulling the army out, said Putin is acting correctly with political measures. Chechnya this year approved its own constitution in a referendum and voted on a new president.

"We should move forward on a political track, we should address the political, social and economic problems," said Gorbachev, who is visiting the United States to promote the environmental fund that he heads — Green Cross International.

"My formula for a solution is: Chechnya is part of Russia, all of Russia should help Chechnya to rebuild, and Chechnya should have a special status within Russia," he said.

The main solution suggested for Chechnya has been talks either with the rebels or with politicians in Chechnya who oppose Kremlin policy but aren't fighting. Other suggested solutions have ranged from allowing Chechnya to secede from Russia to wiping out the rebels.

Gorbachev, though, endorsed Putin's approach for moderate Chechens to run their own affairs. "The people support him. The Chechens are stepping up and are very active in the government, political, business and law enforcement spheres," he said.

The political process, Gorbachev said, is opposed by militants, "those who are in the centers of international terrorism, and I would also say some people in the Russian military."

For these people, he said, Chechnya is "a business, a political and economic business."

"(Also) it's my gut feeling that some political leaders in some countries would like Russia to get bogged down in this Chechen quagmire,"' Gorbachev said, without naming any countries. An aide to Gorbachev, citing a recent opinion poll, said a majority of Russians see America as hostile.

Gorbachev said it was totally impermissible for Russia and "unacceptable for many countries," that an Islamic state in the Caucasus regions take root on Russia's southern flank.

"Continual instability in the Caucasus will affect everybody," he said, stressing that the world must back Putin's fight against terrorism in the region.

Gorbachev shied away from questions on how he would like history to remember him but spat out sharp words about Boris Yeltsin, his rival and eventual successor.

"History is a fickle lady. A lot depends on who will be writing that history and where," he said. "Boris Yeltsin spent 10 years trying to stomp out everything that Gorbachev had done. That was a Don Quixote-like enterprise. I do hope a little place in history will be available to me."