Russians turn up heat on Chechens in Vilnius

  • 2002-11-07

Russia's ambassador to Lithuania demanded that a Chechen information center operating in Vilnius be closed, calling it a representative office for terrorists.

Ambassador Yuri Zubakov, following a Nov. 5 meeting with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, told journalists that he could not understand why Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who is not recognized by Moscow as the lawful leader of the republic, should have representation in Vilnius.

Zubakov's comments came as Russia stepped up pressure on other countries to condemn Chechens as terrorists after a group of Chechen rebels took more than 800 people hostage in a downtown Moscow theater late last month, vowing to bring the Chechen war "home to Moscow."

Russian troops have been fighting against separatists in the breakaway republic since 1999, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a war to stop Chechens from invading the Russian republic of Dagestan.

Vilnius municipal officials, though, said there were no legal grounds to close the Chechen mission, which they say is primarily a cultural organization involved in humanitarian aid and information.

Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, have been loud proponents of the Chechen cause, as many see that republic's struggle for independence as similar to their own.

Stanislovas Buskevicus, head of the Lithuanian parliament's Chechen support group, called the calls to close the representative office "scandalous and shameful."

To complicate matters further, Lietuvos Zinos reported that the company that owns the building occupied by the Chechen representative has said it will not renew the lease. The company, Senove, declined to comment.

"Can it be just a coincidence," asked Buskevicius, who said he expects the municipality and the company have been pressured to urge the Chechen office to close down.

Aminat Saieva, who heads the Vilnius office, said it would find new premises in the city if forced to move.