Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 222

The Baltic states set a standard of intellectual and political integrity in assessing Russia’s war in Chechnya during the recent Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Estonian President Lennart Meri demonstratively stayed away from the summit. He explained in a letter to his fellow heads-of-state that his gesture was meant to register profound concern about the OSCE’s passivity toward that war and accompanying manifestations of chauvinism and anti-Semitism. Meri’s criticism reinforced that of Estonia’s Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves, who had noted before the summit the OSCE’s ineffectiveness and inclination to bend its own standards and rules.

Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga also declined to attend the summit, citing Latvia’s eighty-first independence anniversary on November 18 as her reason. But in a Russian press interview published that day, Vike-Freiberga expressed profound concern over the war in Chechnya and urged Russia to enter into a political dialogue with the legitimate Chechen leadership. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who attended the event in Istanbul, expressed Lithuania’s serious concern over the situation in Belarus even as the overwhelming majority of delegations–with the Western great powers in the lead–decided to let that country’s dictator go scot-free at the summit as a soothing gesture to Russia (see below).

It was left to the Estonian and Latvian prime ministers, Mart Laar and Andris Skele, to register their countries’ moral and political objections to Russia’s indiscriminate use of force against the Chechen population. Laar described that war as a “manifestation of racism” and an unacceptable case of “demonizing an entire people.” Warning against the dangerous spillover potential of the war, Laar dismissed Russia’s claim that it combats terrorism when it in fact attacks the civilian population. By that logic, he said, hijacked airliners and their passengers would deliberately be blown up as a method of combating terrorist hijackers. Skele similarly condemned the victimization of civilians by the Russian military. Without questioning Russia’s territorial integrity, both prime ministers urged Moscow to negotiate toward a political solution to the conflict and accept international assistance, including the OSCE’s, toward that end.

Before the OSCE summit, the parliaments of Estonia and Lithuania passed strongly worded resolutions condemning Russia’s war in Chechnya for both its moral and its political implications. The parliaments called for an end to military attacks on civilians and for OSCE- or UN-assisted negotiations with the Chechen political leadership. The Latvian parliament began debating a draft resolution along similar lines (BNS, Radios Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, November 15-22; Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 18). Lithuanian Parliament Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis criticized the resolution on Chechnya for stopping short of a clear condemnation of military atrocities against civilians and for failing to urge Moscow to negotiate with the legally elected Chechen authorities. According to Landsbergis, such ambiguity contributes to undermining democracy in a “Russia that currently seems intoxicated with chauvinism.”

Estonia’s and Latvia’s stance on Chechnya unintentionally and indirectly highlighted the passivity of the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, regarding the plight of Chechens and other national minorities in Russia. Van der Stoel’s activities have selectively and controversially focused on Estonia and Latvia (see the Monitor, May 11, June 21, 22, July 8, 13, 19). The high commissioner is completing his second term of office in December 1999 and is barred by the organization’s rules from seeking a third term. Yet he has made himself available for continued service and was approved for another year in that post at the Istanbul summit, if only because none of the three candidates for the post garnered an absolute majority of votes (BNS, November 19).