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The Fugitive

Matthew Brzezinski
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; 1:00 PM

Matthew Brzezinski writes about how a Chechen terror suspect winds up living on taxpayers' dollars near the National Zoo in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine.

Read the article:

Surrealpolitik (Post Magazine, March 20)

Brzezinski was online Tuesday, March 22, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Washington, D.C.: Your article was generally quite fair to Mr. Akhmadov. It therefore seems needlessly inflammatory and pejorative to headline him as a "terror suspect." Why give such prominent endorsement to the charges leveled by the increasingly brutal Russian government? Particularly when your article makes clear that the US government never produced any real evidence connecting him to terrorism and has since dropped the terrorism allegations?

Nelson Mandela was considered a "terror suspect" by the apartheid government of South Africa. The Chinese consider the Dalai Lama to be an enemy of the state. The Burmese government would be thrilled if the Post described Aung San Suu Kyi as a "terror suspect." Presumably in an article about those people you wouldn't adopt the labels preferred by the oppressing nation, and so I don't think it was appropriate to do so here either.

Matthew Brzezinski: Thanks for your question, and kind words. Two reasons: one)An arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Akhmadov in connection with terrorism charges. So, legally, he is a terror suspect.
two)the fact that he is wanted by the Russian authorities on terror charges is what makes the story both controversial and compelling. Not to stress this would violate the tenets of Journalism 101


Arlington, Va.: I thought your article was generally quite good. I must take issue, however, with your suggestion that Mr. Akhmadov's endorsements from Haig, Kampelman, Albright, et al. simply represented Cold War nostalgia, rather than a genuine belief in Mr. Akhmadov's peaceful intentions. Mr. Akhmadov has received similar endorsements from European political figures and high UN officials, none of whom could plausibly be written off as Cold War irredentists. Rather, these people, like Mr. Akhmadov's American supporters, have recognized that Mr. Akhmadov represents hope for a peaceful resolution and that his life would be in immediate danger if he was turned over to Russian custody.

Matthew Brzezinski: Yes, you have a point that Akhmadov's supporters are not guided by purely geopolitical motivations. Those that I spoke to have genuinely grown fond of him and were almost over-protective in their concern for his safety. I tried to make this point in the story, but perhaps I should have highlighted it more. However, not to mention that Akhmadov's backers are mostly veterans of the Cold War would have exposed the WP to criticism for omission.


Chisinau, Moldova: Mr. Brzezinski, can you make a parallel between Russian aggression in Chechnya and Russian occupation of Moldovan Transdniestria, Georgian Abkhazia and Georgian South Osetia? Apropos, what is your opinion about the new "Washington-London-Bucharest Axis" declared by President Bush and Romanian President Basescu, and how it may influence the Black Sea area, including Moldova, Georgia and long-suffering Chechnya?

Matthew Brzezinski: Russia has been accused of dragging its feet on promises to withdraw from the regions you mention, but there is no parallel since these are in foreign countries, while Chechnya, of course, is a Russian territory. But your question does touch on the larger point of Moscow's traditions of empire, and the Kremlin's reluctance to have a diminished role in what it considers its sphere of influence. This is hugely important as Russia gains strength, recovers from the 1990s collapse of its economy, and seeks to flex its muscles and play a greater regional role. If Moscow uses economic or energy levers to project influence that's fine, even laudable, since every nation does it...but if it uses the military to bully its weaker neighbors that's a different story.
As to the second part of your question, i'm afraid it's outside of my area


Rockville, Md.: Were you able to talk to Akhmadov about the recent killing of Maskhadov (or did your interview with him occur before the killing)? Did he have any opinion about the death of this moderate Chechen?

Matthew Brzezinski: It occurred just as we went into production. While we were able to insert a quick paragraph about it into the story, I was unable to discuss it with Akhmadov. Clearly, however, it does not bode well for the peace process because, as you say, Maskhadov was seen as a moderate in the increasingly radicalized conflict. The question now is who will represent the Chechens in future talks, if there are any? Certainly not Basayev. So who there has the moral authority and legitimacy to speak for the Chechen people? Akhmadov believes that the Kremlin targeted Maskhadov precisely because it does not want anyone to negotiate with.


Alexandria, Va.: The headline "How a Chechen terror suspect wound up living on taxpayers' dollars near the National Zoo" was an unfortunate attempt to sensationalize your article and gave the wrong impression. How about "The Chechen that all Washington insiders know to be a man of peace was labeled a terrorist and given a hard time in his asylum bid to appease Putin."

Matthew Brzezinski: Works for me...I don't write headlines, nor do I deal with the complexities involved in selling newspapers...but I think you will agree that the story makes it very clear that Akhmadov has been found innocent of the charges by US courts and is a reasonable man prosecuted for his beliefs.


Alexandria, Va.: Why do you keep saying that Chechnya is a Russian territory? Before the breakup of the USSR the Chechen-Ingush Republic was part of the USSR. After the breakup, Ingushetia chose to join Russia. Chechnya never did. Only Russians think Chechnya is a Russian territory.

Matthew Brzezinski: I'm afraid that I don't draw world maps, or decide where boundaries should lie. For now, like it or not, Chechnya is in Russia -- so recognized by the State Department, the UN, and even Amnesty International. But I think I make it clear that it does not want to be in Russia, and sees its inclusion as an occupation.


Virginia: Do the U.S. and Russia have an extradition treaty?

Matthew Brzezinski: No... a legacy of the Cold War that remains in effect until now....That is the principle reason Akhmadov chose to apply for asylum here.


Virginia: Are you related to a famous Brzezinski of Carter fame? Should there be a disclosure since your father was involved?

Matthew Brzezinski: I am...and there is a disclosure in the story (and he's an uncle, not parent)


Alexandria, Va.: Sorry to give you a hard time about the headline. I know you don't write them. I still did not like it.

Matthew Brzezinski: to be honest, I wasn't crazy about it either; but don't tell the boss..I wouldn't want to bite the hand that feeds me


Alexandria, Va.: What sort of reactions have you gotten about the article?

Matthew Brzezinski: the usual: Akhmadov's supporters don't appreciate the references to his connections with Basayev and worry that the story highlights negatives, while his detractors say it is a propaganda puff-piece that whitewashes his involvement with terror. In other words no one who has an agenda is entirely happy, which hopefully means i've done my job of giving both sides of the argument


Maryland: How exactly are my tax dollars paying for his life here?

Matthew Brzezinski: minimally...he has a fellowship from a think-tank that receives funding from Congress. I imagine, it's a small stipend.


D.C.: How is this case different from Marc Rich, who lives in Switzerland?

Matthew Brzezinski: Marc Rich, to the best of my knowledge, is wanted for tax evasion, and hiding in Switzerland. Akhmadov is a separatist politician, facing what US courts found to be trumped-charges of terror by the Russians. I think this is the proverbial case of apples and oranges


Alexandria, Va.: I know we in the US are bad about geography, but I think some mention of the fact that Chechnya was not a Russian territory before the breakup of the USSR should be mentioned in any future article you do on the subject. If Russia had claimed Georgia or Latvia, we would probably have gone along because the old USSR and Russia are often confused here. But that would not make it right.

Matthew Brzezinski: I am just as guilty of poor geography, for I always thought that Chechnya was part of the Russian SSR in the Soviet days. Correct me if I'm wrong, though.


Maryland: Did Akhmadov talk about his time in Pankisi Gorge and if so, did he shed any light on the Russian claims that Georgia was harboring Chechen terrorists/ rebels among the refugees?

Matthew Brzezinski: Yes, he mentioned passing through it and that Russian fighter jets entered Georgian airspace...he did not address claims that Georgia harbored terrorists there, though clearly the allegations must have had merit because the US sent Special Forces to train the Georgians in counter-terror operations.


Washington, D.C.: Has Akhmadov ever publicly disavowed the invasion of Dagestan in 1999? Is not, what is your sense of why not?

Matthew Brzezinski: He certainly was very critical of Basayev's incursion when we spoke, ( he categorically condemned it)... but I do not know what he said at the time (ie in 1999) Nor do I have access to everyone of his public statements since, so I cannot answer your question.


Munich, Germany: Even in Europe, the Chechen dilemma has not been widely explained. After reading your article I felt that it would be important to keep this man around just as a living history of Chechnya, because there aren't many left who can do so. How do you feel about this all? Is Chechnya a forgotten race, doomed to extinction?

Matthew Brzezinski: Hello Munich. I agree that it is unfortunate that what has been happening in Chechnya has occurred largely under the radar, especially since 9/11. I also fear you are correct in saying that the plight of the Chechens will be forgotten and that individuals like Akhmadov serve a purpose to remind the world not only about what is happening there but also about how insurgent conflicts are not black and white, as politicians tend to characterize them, but complex and full of gray areas.


Alexandria, Va.: Look up Chechen-Ingush Republic. It was a part of the USSR. Russia is claiming everything. If you watched the Worlds Figure Skating last week you heard the old anthem of the USSR now played as the Russian anthem (replacing the old Russian anthem.)

Matthew Brzezinski: i do not dispute that chechnya was part of the USSR..the question is which of the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union was it part of. The Russian SSR? Isn't that correct?


Alexandria, Va.: I think if you ask him Akhmadov will tell you he issued press releases condemning the incursions into neighboring countries.

Matthew Brzezinski: that should appease some of his critics, who say he supported the incursions


Matthew Brzezinski: Since my time is up, I will wrap up. Thank you for your questions and interest in the story.
Best regards
Matthew Brzezinski


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