Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 208

Washington’s latest condemnations of Russia’s Chechen campaign came as criticism of Moscow continued to mount elsewhere around the globe as well. On November 6, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook telephoned his Russia counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, to reiterate London’s concern over the worsening plight of refugees in and around Chechnya. Cook reportedly urged that international aid organizations be given early access to the region. He also demanded a halt to the fighting in Chechnya and said he was concerned about Moscow’s apparent “lack of a political strategy” there. Ivanov reportedly agreed to meet with Cook over Chechnya during the OSCE summit scheduled for November 18-19 in Istanbul. Earlier last week Prime Minister Tony Blair had written his second letter to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressing London’s concerns over developments in Chechnya (AFP, November 7; Itar-Tass, November 6).

Perhaps more ominously for Moscow, unhappiness over Russia’s crackdown in the Caucasus appears to be gathering some steam in the Muslim world. Yesterday, Bahrain–with the support of several other Muslim countries–reportedly made the first move to have the humanitarian situation in Chechnya included for discussion by the UN Security Council. In Yemen, meanwhile, a crowd of some 10,000 people marched on November 6 to show their solidarity with fellow Muslims in Chechnya. The demonstration was organized by an Islamist party to condemn “Russia’s aggression” in Chechnya (AFP, November 8).

Even in Iran–which has emerged as one of Russia’s closest post-Cold War allies–some dissatisfaction has appeared over the Russian crackdown in Chechnya. On November 6, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry cautiously called for Moscow to resolve the Chechen conflict through negotiation. Speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the spokesman also urged the two sides to avoid the violence that he said is primarily harming civilians and Chechnya’s defenseless Muslim population (Itar-Tass, November 7).

In an effort to head off criticism by Muslim states of Russia’s military operations in the Caucasus, the Russian Foreign Ministry last month dispatched envoys to a number of Arab capitals. That action, together with the reticence of many Arab leaders to criticize Moscow, appears thus far to have muted public expressions of unhappiness over events in Chechnya. But it is possible that the prolongation of the Russian military operations in the Caucasus–and the creation of an ever more serious refugee problem–could generate stronger protests in the Muslim world.

But Moscow is showing little indication of any willingness to accommodate international opinion on the issue. After a meeting with ambassadors from the Group of Seven countries in Moscow yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was quoted as saying that there could be no question of any sanctions against Moscow for its actions in Chechnya. He also warned the West against admonishing Moscow and, perhaps more disturbingly, continued to suggest that reports of a worsening refugee problem in and around Chechnya are nothing but the product of well-organized disinformation campaign. Reports of a humanitarian catastrophe in the North Caucasus are being spread “for the sole purpose of putting pressure on Russia,” Ivanov said. Ivanov compared the alleged propaganda effort over Chechnya to what he suggested had been a similar disinformation campaign earlier this year aimed at convincing public opinion that there was a looming humanitarian crisis in Kosovo (Russian agencies, Xinhua, November 8). Russia was apparently the intended victim in both cases.