Helms Blocks Russian Aid

The head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee is opposing an agreement by the United States to reschedule some $485 million in Russian debt, saying it would amount to a subsidy by American taxpayers of the war in Chechnya.

"I strongly object to proceeding with this debt rescheduling," Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, said in a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dated Wednesday.

"It is…outrageous for our government to facilitate financially President (Vladimir) Putin's war against Chechnya by bilaterally easing the Kremlin's debt burden," he said.

Russia is seeking to restructure more than $40 billion in debt with the Paris Club of 19 creditor nations. Moscow has already signed some bilateral agreements with individual countries, including the one with the United States signed May 26, to reschedule about $485 million in debt.

Helms, one of President Clinton's harshest critics in Congress, said he objected to any rescheduling deal as long as Russia continued financial support for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's government in Belgrade.

He noted that Russia had announced in May that it had nearly completed making a $150 million loan to Serbia.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms can use his position to block foreign loan refinancing without seeking further Senate approval, congressional sources said.

"If the government of Russia has the financial capacity to conduct its brutal assault of Chechnya and to finance the Milosevic regime, it certainly has the financial capacity to meet its existing debt obligations," said Helms.

"I will not agree to any debt rescheduling agreement with the government of Russia until, at a minimum, Russia terminates its assistance to the Milosevic regime in Serbia and has initiated a full cease-fire in Chechnya and peace negotiations with the democratically elected government led by President Aslan Maskhadov."

Last week, the Senate approved a resolution authored by Helms to be attached to next year's defense and Department of Energy spending bill that expressed the "sense of the Senate" that Russia should "ease its military operations in Chechnya and participate in negotiations toward a just peace."

That resolution also called on Russia to allow international human rights monitors and aid agencies into Chechnya.

A State Department spokesperson refused to comment on Helm's letter or any response from Albright.

According to a recently released annual survey of human rights around the globe by Amnesty International, Chechen civilians "were the victims of indiscriminate killings, direct attacks, torture and extrajudicial execution by Russia federal forces" in 1999.

Helms and his committee have often locked horns with the administration. Last fall, he blocked the appointment of former Senator Carol Mosely Braun, with whom Helms had feuded in the Senate, to be ambassador to New Zealand. She eventually was named to the post after a 98-2 Senate vote in November, 1999.

In 1997, he blocked liberal Republican and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's bid to be ambassador to Mexico.