Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright yesterday denounced recent Russian attacks on Chechnya as "deplorable and ominous," markedly stepping up the Clinton administration's criticism of Russia's efforts to eradicate terrorists in its separatist southern region.
Speaking to reporters in Kenya at the end of a six-day African tour, Albright said events in Chechnya are of "grave concern" and that she planned to register her objections to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Albright's comments came a day after a Russian military spokesman acknowledged that Russian forces were responsible for a rocket attack Thursday on a market in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The attack, which initially touched off a round of contradictory denials by top Russian officials, killed more than 140 people, many of whom appeared to be civilians. Reporters on the scene counted teenagers and children among the dead.
"While they have had concerns about activities of terrorists, getting the civilian population involved in this, in this way, does not lead to a resolution," Albright said.
During a news briefing on Friday, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart also criticized the attack. "It is certainly troubling to see this kind of loss of life, and we have repeated to the Russians that we don't--that we believe that a constructive political dialogue is the only way to end this, that we should not repeat the mistakes of 1994 and 1996," when Russian troops invaded Chechnya only to be driven out, Lockhart said.
Also on Friday, deputy national security adviser Jim Steinberg, in a previously scheduled meeting with Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, "reiterated our concern about the indiscriminate use of force in Chechnya," White House spokesman Nanda Chitre said yesterday.
The critical comments from top Clinton administration officials come after repeated criticism from Republicans in Congress and others who have accused the administration of looking past behavior by Russia that it would not tolerate elsewhere--such as human rights violations and widespread corruption.
Critics often cite the 1996 statement by President Clinton during a visit to Moscow comparing Russian President Boris Yeltsin's plight after more than a year of gruesome fighting in Chechnya to Abraham Lincoln's situation during the Civil War.
The criticism also has extended to Vice President Gore, a leading force in the Clinton administration's policy toward Russia.
Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes has said that Gore, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, shares the blame for Russia laundering huge sums of suspected ill-gotten money through the Bank of New York.
Foreign policy aides to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, have argued that the administration should have been more sensitive to the level of corruption in Moscow and that Gore too willingly accepted empty pledges of reform.
Some analysts said the administration may be changing its approach. It seems that "the administration now in all respects is saying, 'Let's call it like we see it, not bend over backward to not embarrass Yeltsin,' " said Marshall Goldman, a professor of Russian economics at Wellesley College.
In recent weeks, officials have laid out what they describe as a clearly defined policy toward Russia's conflict with Chechnya.
In a speech at Harvard University this month, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott urged Russia not to use "indiscriminate force" to fight terrorism in Chechnya.
He also called the deportation from Moscow of some 10,000 natives of the southern Caucasus "ugly" and an "ominous" development.
Last week, Talbott repeated many of those comments testifying before a House committee, calling the conflict in Chechnya "perhaps the single most disturbing thing happening in Russia."
Russian officials have defended their advances into Chechnya, saying they are aimed at ending a wave of deadly bomb attacks and other terrorist acts they blame on separatists in Chechnya, which the United States acknowledges as part of Russia.
They also have defended the market bombing that sparked Albright's comments, saying that the strike was aimed at arms merchants who at night transformed the market into an arms bazaar where weapons were sold to the region's separatist guerrillas.
"It seems that American policy is moving from one extreme--forgiving anything the Russians were doing--to another extreme, not acknowledging the Russian dilemma in Chechnya," said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a foreign policy research center. "Two wrongs do not make one right."
CAPTION: Russian troops ride atop an armed carrier as they progress toward the capital of Chechnya. One U.S. official called the attacks "deplorable and ominous."