Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 65

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) appeared yesterday to hit yet another speed bump over the war in Chechnya following a report by Itar-Tass that high-level talks between the two sides, scheduled for early next week, have been postponed. The report, based on an unnamed source in Russia’s Foreign Ministry, suggested that the meetings might be rescheduled for April 6 or 10. Javier Solana, the EU’s high commissioner for common foreign policy, and Chris Patten, European commissioner for external relations, were to have met with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials in Moscow on April 3-4. The EU could not confirm officially yesterday whether the talks have actually been postponed, but the Itar-Tass report strongly suggests that, at the least, some new tensions have arisen between Russia and Europe regarding Moscow’s brutal war in the Caucasus (AP, March 30).

The importance of next week’s EU-Russian talks was underscored in remarks on March 29 by the EU’s senior diplomat in Moscow. Gilbert Dubois, acting head of the EU delegation to Russia, told reporters that Putin’s election could very well mark a positive “turning point” in relations between Russia and the EU. But he suggested that Chechnya remains the key obstacle to improved ties, and that Putin’s actions over the next few weeks will serve as a crucial indicator of the Kremlin’s intentions. “Symbolically, this is a new era and I hope it will allow Mr. Putin to change his views and to try to find an acceptable cease-fire and open serious negotiations as soon as possible,” Dubois said. The European diplomat also indicated that the EU hoped during high level meetings between the two sides over the next several weeks to get commitments from Moscow on human rights and democracy, as well as a pledge to end the war in Chechnya. In addition to the April 3-4 talks that had been scheduled for next week, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is scheduled to meet with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on April 10. An EU-Russian summit is scheduled for May in Moscow (Reuters, March 30).

The backdrop to the latest drama between Russia and the EU is, of course, next week’s debate by the Council of Europe on Russia’s war in Chechnya. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) is scheduled to meet from April 4-7, and reports yesterday suggested that the postponement of the Russian-EU talks could be related to that event. Moscow faces a possible suspension vote by the Council of Europe over Russian military actions in Chechnya, and the Kremlin may be waiting to see how events develop in Strasbourg before scheduling the talks with Solana and Patten.

As it did on the eve of another possible suspension vote by the Council of Europe in late January (see the Monitor, January 26, 28), Moscow in recent days has mounted an aggressive campaign aimed at heading off any action against Russia by the European human rights organization. Various Russian officials have warned that Moscow might either renounce its membership in the Council of Europe prior to any suspension vote or–in the event of Russia’s suspension–end all cooperation with the Council of Europe in the Caucasus. The likely head of the Russian delegation to next week’s talks, Dmitry Rogozin, said earlier this week that he is expecting the worst, and that he has already worked out face-saving measures for his delegation to gracefully exit the hall in Strasbourg if Russia is asked to leave. But he also apparently won an agreement from Lord Judd, the Council’s main investigator on Chechen rights abuses, not to include a recommendation of suspension in the report that he submits to the Council. Following a fact-finding mission to the Caucasus earlier this month Judd had spoken of his shock at seeing Chechnya’s devastated capital. He had also suggested then that Moscow might face suspension from the Council of Europe (see the Monitor, March 15).