Neil BarnettBuilding bridges for Chechnya
Aug. 10, 2000
When I was in London in June, a mysterious invitation came clattering out of the fax machine.
"The Russian Embassy, London, invites you‚" it read‚ "to a screening of The Slave Market, a film made by the democratic Chechen opposition." The film purported to show how Chechen bandits had provoked Russia to invade for a second time in the charitable interests of the Chechens.
Star turn was Dr Boris Perchenko, described as Professor of Moscow University, former hostage and slave. But who puts the Chechen side of the story? Károly Berg, 32, named Chechen Ambassador, representative to Hungary by President Aslan Maskadov in May.
Berg, a Hungarian national, had been a long-time pro-Chechen activist when, in late 1999, a diplomat from one of the Baltic states put him in touch with Chechen leaders. They saw him as an ideal advocate for their cause.
He concedes that his task is rather challenging. For a start, Chechnya is not recognized as an independent state by anyone except Afghanistan's Taliban, themselves not regulars on the embassy cocktail circuit. And the impoverished, besieged government of Aslan Maskadov lacks the resources to mount a worldwide public relations campaign. So Berg - like the 11 other Chechen ambassadors around the world - lacks diplomatic status, an embassy and most of the acoutrements of a conventional ambassador. "I hope that in the near future I will have state resources‚" he says, "but a Middle East government - at this point I cannot tell you which one - will perhaps start financing my mission in Budapest soon."
For now he compares his twilight diplomatic status to that of the Taiwanese mission.
To make matters worse, whatever the injustices of the Russian invasions, the Chechens have done little to endear themselves to the world at large.
In 1998, four telecom engineers, three Britons and a New Zealander, were abducted in Chechnya, probably in the hopes of extracting a ransom. Two months later their severed heads were found in a ditch. In 1997, two Hungarian Christian missionaries were abducted and held for nine months before being released unharmed upon payment of a ransom.
Kidnapping is an ancient tradition in the Caucasus (in Ossetia, for example, kidnapping of brides is the main mechanism for marriage), but, as I put it to Berg, might the Chechens be undermining their own case?
His response is robust. "The telecom engineers installed the satellite system for the whole of Chechnya. You have to ask who benefited from killing them, and I really don't think it was in the interests of the Chechens.
"I don't want to blame anyone, not the FSB of the GRU (Russian foreign and military intelligence), but we have to think that an international investigation, one day, will reveal the truth.
"Much the same is true for the Hungarian missionaries" he said.
He offers a similar line on the apartment bombs used by Vladimir Putin as a casus belli for a full-scale invasion of Chechnya, but in that case, at least, there is a strong body of informed opinion to support a Russian conspiracy.
Does he think his Quixotic mission is yielding results?
Apparently so. "In fact, I started my work unofficially in January, and since then you can see a change in the Hungarian press, because they have switched from writing only about Chechens as bandits and terrorists to independence fighters and freedom fighters."
In the PR tradition, Berg says his work with diplomats, politicians and journalists is to inform them, rather than to influence them, so that they will use not only Russian but also Chechen and international information.
Given the critical attention the Russian invasion has received from foreign journalists and NGOs (in spite of Russian attempts to exclude them from the warzone), this may be a sensible policy.
"But they are always criticizing the Russian Federation, and yet we have no real support. For example, we urgently need help for refugees," he said.
But surely the obvious resonances of Russian invasion and occupation are not lost on the Hungarians? Are they not a naturally sympathetic audience?
"Intellectuals like writers and teachers see the connections, but the average Hungarian has forgotten that until 1991 we too were an occupied country and had 50,000 Russian troops on our soil. Yet so many Hungarians are apathetic about Chechnya."
At this he looks a little crestfallen.
Clearly Berg has not taken on the job of representing the Chechens for the prospect of riches. What, then, is his motivation?
"I think my first motivation is an ethical one‚" he replies. "But more than that it is my personal feeling, a feeling of my soul and my heart. I know that small nations all over the world have very similar problems and I think that every nation, no matter what its size, has a right to self-determination and to run its own affairs.
"The Basques and the Catalans in Spain are a good example, and this must be the way for the future if we want long-term peace in Europe," he added.
Berg speaks excellent English and German, has worked in German regional government and as an advisor to the Hungarian foreign minister, and also works with several NGOs.
His family, from the western town of Kapuvár, is of German nobility.
Finally, I asked who was going to win in Chechnya. Berg scratches his chin, with its fetching goatee beard, his eyes gleam, and he says, "It depends on when and how the Russians want to stop the war, as the losses mount each month. It depends largely on Putin.
"But remember, the Chechens have nothing to lose, and even when there is just one Chechen fighter left, he will fight on."
They also have a redoubtable warrior in Budapest.