Chechen Ambassador Not Recognized
Washington, DC, USA
By Pauline Jelinek
For the envoy from Chechnya, there are no fancy diplomatic soirees or stately offices on Embassy Row.
Lyoma Usmanov is a staff of one, on a budget of next to nothing, trying to alter the calamitous course of Russian-Chechen relations. He is doing it from rent-free quarters in the suburban home of a sympathetic American family.
"My office is my room. My room is in a basement," Usmanov said dryly.
The southern Russian republic of Chechnya, where rebels have been battling Kremlin soldiers for more than four months, long has wanted independence but is not recognized as a sovereign nation.
So on the State Department's official protocol list of foreign ambassadors, the 44-year-old Usmanov and his homeland simply do not exist. That is unlikely to change any time soon because the United States has what it views as issues of higher concern to negotiate with Russia, analysts say.
"He's between the proverbial rock and the hard place," said John C.K. Daly, director of programs at the Middle East Institute "He has an immensely frustrating job."
In letters, meetings, press conferences and speeches, Usmanov for 2? years has been explaining Chechnya's problems, promoting its position and pushing for support ranging from food aid to business investment. "He does single-handedly all of the things that an embassy does," said Johanna Nichols, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who is consulting Usmanov for what she says will be the first definitive Chechen-English dictionary. "He works 18 hours a day. I worry about his health."
Usmanov worries about his mission. He tried for six months to get grain or other humanitarian aid for the republic.
"Chechnya did not get any," he said.
He tried to get Chechen students into a program that brings foreigners to the United States to study.
"Zero," he said.
He wanted the State Department to issue a statement endorsing democracy in Chechnya.
"Sure, they agree to your face (in private)," Usmanov said, "but not as a matter of policy."
He wrote Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggesting "tens of Chechen refugees" be brought to live in Arizona. The idea went nowhere. "I thought it would be nice for Chechens," Usmanov said. "Arizona is a mountain region - not beautiful like Chechnya - but anyway, a nice region for Chechens."
A former civil engineer with a quick smile and easy laugh, Usmanov said he entered politics in 1987 to stop what he saw as the destruction of Chechen culture. He was elected to the Chechen Parliament in 1990.
"I love Chechen national architecture - its towers, very nice stone towers, some built 2,000 years ago, some seven stories," he says. "It's hard to find anyplace in the world where simple people, not kings, built such things in the mountains."
But Russians have destroyed most traditional Chechen architecture, he said. "Special KGB units exploded it so that you would have no trace of Chechens. It's their mentality."
Chechnya fought a separatist war in 1994-96 and won Russian agreement that it could handle its own affairs, but then did a poor job.
Usmanov said he has not been paid since the president sent him $10,000 in the summer of 1998. He gets by on "donations from friends and small jobs" such as a grant he received from a Washington think tank to research Chechen-Russian affairs.
But his main work is to tell Americans that Chechens are "like any Western population, they have the same mentality, appreciation of the same values, human - rights, liberty, open market," he says, "and we need a helping hand to become part of the West."
He said he did his best - "more than best" - on that chore and on making it clear that Checnhya is eager to negotiate an end to current fighting.
Though he lacks official diplomatic status, Usmanov has had dozens of meetings to make the pitch to State Department officials, legislators and others.
-An intelligence officer who said he was surprised to see a Chechen Muslim clean-shaven and looking "like a European." Said Usmanov: "We don't look like Europeans. We ARE Europeans!"
-A State Department official who apologized for not being able to do much for the Chechens. "He talked to me on behalf of the American government from his heart."
-A second department official who looked down his bureaucratic nose.
"Many Americans have ambitions ... or if they have power, they think you are nothing," Usmanov said. "Some of those people - I don't think they are real Americans. I am not nothing. I am a human being."
And, "according to the Chechen Constitution, I'm ambassador."