Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 197

If it hadn’t been so otherwise, the Djohar bombing ensured that the subject of Chechnya dominated the October 22 Russia-European Union meeting. EU officials reportedly grilled Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the bombing incident and Russian policy in the region overall but his responses could not have been especially satisfying. He apparently hewed to the same formula that has raised his popularity so much at home. He blamed Chechen militants both for the marketplace bombing and for the broader problems in the region. He reiterated Russia’s willingness to resolve the conflict by political means, but insisted simultaneously that Moscow would first rout the rebels and negotiate only when a legitimate authority was established in Chechnya (Russian and Western agencies, October 22).

A Russian newspaper report had suggested prior to Putin’s departure that the Kremlin viewed the Russian-EU summit as a golden opportunity for the Russian premier to dazzle the West. According to the report, he would win Western support for Russia’s Chechen campaign by providing convincing evidence of the Chechen rebels’ culpability for the bloodshed there. He would also, the report said, wow his Western interlocutors with facts about Russia’s current economic rebound. It was suggested that the Russian premier’s performance would greatly raise both Putin’s and Russia’s prestige abroad (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 22).

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Putin accomplished any of this during his visit to Helsinki. But he did apparently manage to avoid any direction confrontation with European leaders over Chechnya. The two sides confirmed their intention to continue improving EU-Russian relations and there was no mention made of the Chechen conflict in the summit’s final joint statement (EU-Russia Summit Joint Statement, October 22).

The issue was included, however, in Finnish President Paavo Lipponen’s concluding press statement, which recognized anew Russia’s territorial integrity and condemned all forms of terrorism–EU positions which Moscow has repeatedly underscored. But the statement also expressed the EU’s serious concerns about the “stability of the whole [Caucasus] region and its implications for the countries of South Caucasus.” It also said that EU leaders “do not accept, nor… believe in the efficacy of a military solution to a problem which is basically political and reflects the desperate socioeconomic situation of the whole of the North Caucasus region.” It urged the Russian government to seek dialogue with all legitimate leaders of the North Caucasus.

It was unclear whether the EU had expressed “satisfaction” with Russia’s plans for the Caucasus region, as Russian sources had reported. In the formal statement at least, there was no such reference. European Commission President Romano Prodi did say that the EU had received assurances from Putin that Russia would seek a long-lasting solution for the North Caucasus. “We appreciate this message,” he was quoted as saying “‘because we are very, very worried about the situation in Chechnya” (EU-Russia Summit Press Statement, Reuters, Russian agencies, October 22).

If Putin at least listened politely to EU criticism of Russian policy in the Caucasus during his Helsinki visit, Russian political figures elsewhere showed no such inclination. During a visit to Spain on October 23 Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for example, suggested that Western criticism of Russia over Chechnya is part of a coordinated disinformation campaign–one “now unfolding in the Western mass media and the internet”–aimed at discrediting the Russian government (RIA, October 23).

A host of Russian commentators, meanwhile, rejected the U.S. criticism of Russian military actions in the region. Colonel General Valery Manilov, the General Staff’s increasingly high-profile first deputy chief, dismissed talk of any use of “disproportionate” use of force in Chechnya, and said that military operations there would continue. Much the same was true of Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman (and former ambassador to the United States). Vladimir Lukin. He called Washington hypocritical for criticizing Moscow’s use of force in Chechnya after having employed air power itself against Yugoslavia. State Duma chairman Gennady Seleznev said that neither the United States nor any NATO member state has “the moral right to tell Russia how to settle the acute conflict in the North Caucasus” (Russian agencies, October 23). References to NATO military action in Yugoslavia have frequently been cited by Russian commentators as a justification for Moscow’s war in the Caucasus.