Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 20

The Russian government yesterday found itself buffeted by international criticism from all sides over its bloody war in Chechnya. But, in diplomatic terms at least, it emerged still largely unscathed. What was perhaps most remarkable, however, was that Russian leaders not only remained defiant, but continued both to fire back and to present Russia itself as the unfortunate victim of Western prejudices, machinations and misperceptions.

Moscow’s most important diplomatic victory came yesterday in Strasbourg, where the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) debated Russia’s war in the Caucasus. Europe’s chief human rights body had emerged as among the most strident international critics of Russia’s war in Chechnya, and there had been some early indications that PACE might move yesterday to suspend Russia’s membership in the assembly as punishment for its misdeeds in the Caucasus. That, at least, had been suggested during a recent Council fact-finding mission in Russia, during which PACE representatives not only met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders, but traveled to the North Caucasus. Delegation members were said to have been appalled by what they found there, and the delegation leader had said that the mission made it more likely that PACE would consider Moscow’s suspension during its upcoming session.

Pressure on Moscow was coming from other directions as well. On Monday (January 24), the European Union (EU) convened to consider Russia’s behavior in Chechnya. Meeting participants considered several mild sanctions against Russia, and there were suggestions that developments at yesterday’s Council of Europe meeting would have some bearing on the EU’s response to Russia’s Caucasus war.

In addition, the French relief organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) met in Strasbourg yesterday and called for the Council of Europe to “recognize officially the existence of an armed conflict in Chechnya and remind Russia of its obligations to respect human rights law.” The French organization, the recipient of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, also denounced the international community more generally for failing to protect the civilian victims of Russia’s military operations in Chechnya. Similar sentiments were expressed by demonstrators in Paris yesterday, who occupied the Council of Europe’s Paris offices and demanded Moscow’s suspension from that body (AFP, January 27). To top it off, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow yesterday to begin three days of talks during which UN demands for a ceasefire in Chechnya were expected to dominate the agenda.

But the Russians remained undaunted. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov sharply criticized PACE on January 24 for having the temerity even to place the question of Russia’s possible suspension on the agenda for yesterday’s session. Russian Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroev joined in, calling the PACE decision an “open challenge to Russia” and an example of the West’s alleged penchant for disregarding Russia’s interests (Russian agencies, Xinhua, January 24). Then, on January 26, Ivanov turned his fire on the EU, blasting the fifteen-member union for moving forward on the issue of possible sanctions against Russia. Ivanov’s threat that Moscow might retaliate economically to the imposition of EU sanctions was backed up by a Foreign Ministry statement, which warned that an exchange of this sort could inflict worse damage on the EU than on Russia (Russian agencies, January 26; Reuters, January 27).

Ivanov need not have worried. While the EU sanctions decision apparently remains up in the air, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly yesterday retreated from any real confrontation with Moscow by voting against a suspension of Moscow’s PACE membership. PACE did accuse Russia of violating “some of its most important obligations under the European human rights convention and international law.” It also called on Moscow “to stop immediately indiscriminate and disproportionate military action [in Chechnya], including the use of young conscripts, and to start a political dialogue with the Chechen authorities” (PACE web site, January 27).

But the Russians could hardly have been impressed by the more practical outcome of yesterday’s session: Moscow was given another three months–until the next PACE session in April–to show that it has made progress toward a peace settlement in Chechnya and the improvement of conditions for civilians in the region. Russia could then once again face a membership suspension vote. Those in the human rights community who might be wondering how many Chechen civilians–particularly in Djohar–will even be left alive in three months’ time might have taken solace from one fact. Yesterday’s suspension vote ended narrowly in Moscow’s favor. Eighty-three assembly members voted against Russia’s suspension; 71 voted in favor. Only about a third of the assembly’s 572 members, however, voted (AP, January 27).