Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 10

With the passing of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Moscow looks set as the locus for a spate of diplomatic events over the next several weeks. European visitors will predominate in the Russian capital, and the Council of Europe is to be especially well represented. In the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected December 31 resignation, European leaders are undoubtedly looking forward to meeting with acting President Vladimir Putin and, more generally, to assessing the political climate in Moscow now that Yeltsin has departed. The issue of Russia’s war in Chechnya will undoubtedly be high on the agenda in those various talks.

The month will close with the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on January 30, at which point developments in the Middle East will take center stage, as foreign ministers from both the West and the Middle Eastern countries gather in Moscow for what Russian officials have described as multilateral talks aimed at boosting the Middle East peace process. The talks are scheduled to get underway on February 1 (Russian agencies, January 12-13).

Although European leaders would probably prefer to observe a brief “honeymoon” period with the newly elevated Putin, recent history and the latest developments in Chechnya suggest that that may be difficult. European governments have spearheaded international criticism of the Russian campaign in the Caucasus, and their condemnations of Moscow grew strongest in the wake of the Russian military’s December 6 ultimatum to Chechen citizens telling them, in essence, to get out of Djohar or die. Given that Western concerns have centered on concern over the fate of Chechnya’s civilian population, criticism from Europe could be energized yet again by the Russian military command’s most recent assault on good sense and decency: its intention to detain and interrogate all Chechen males between ten and sixty years of age. This policy raises all sorts of human rights-related red flags and comes, moreover, at a time when the pressures of his one-dimensional presidential campaign may compel Putin to take an especially hard line on the conduct of the war in Chechnya. The circumstances could set the stage for particularly acrimonious exchanges between Russian and visiting European officials (see following story).

Whether that proves to be the case will start to become clearer today, when David Andrews, Ireland’s foreign minister and the chairman of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, launches talks with Russian officials. Andrews is scheduled to meet today with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and, according to a Council of Europe press release, intends to discuss the “future contribution of the Council of Europe to the restoration of the rule of law, respect for human rights and democracy in Chechnya.” On January 17, moreover, a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) under the leadership of President Lord Russell-Johnston is scheduled to hold talks with Putin, as well as with Ivanov, Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu (who is heavily involved in the Chechen operations) and top parliamentary representatives. The European delegation is set to leave one day later for a fact-finding mission to the Russian Caucasus and will meet there with political leaders from Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia. It will also travel to Russian-controlled areas in Chechnya itself. Throughout its visit the delegation will reportedly raise two issues that the Kremlin would undoubtedly rather ignore: the prospects which exist for a political solution to the Chechen conflict and Moscow’s related human rights obligations as a member of PACE (Council of Europe press release, January 13).

This last issue lay at the heart of a rare action taken by Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer on December 15 of last year. Under Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Schwimmer formally asked Russia to provide–by January 10–explanations of how the Convention is being implemented by Russian authorities in Chechnya. Schwimmer yesterday thanked Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov for having complied with the Council of Europe request and for having recognized that the situation in Chechnya “is a matter of concern for the Council of Europe by virtue of its competence.” Council experts will reportedly study the Russian reply and will make their conclusions the subject of the talks over the next week between officials from Russia and the Council of Europe (Council of Europe press release, January 13). Given the most recent developments in Chechnya, that too could prove to be a contentious subject.

Chechnya will also undoubtedly be high on the list of discussion topics during visits to the Russian capital by the Italian and German Foreign Ministers, Lamberto Dini and Joschka Fischer, respectively, on January 20-21, and by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on January 27 and Madeleine Albright on January 30. Albright’s State Department announced on January 12, however, that the Clinton administration has ruled out any mediation role for Washington in the Chechen conflict. State Department spokesman James Rubin reiterated Washington’s belief that Russian policy in the Caucasus is misguided, but suggested that any foreign mediation of the conflict might be better left to the Europeans. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has repeatedly sought a mandate from Moscow to mediate between Russians and Chechens. Rubin’s remarks came, it might be noted, during a visit to Washington by Ilyas Akhmadov, who serves as foreign minister in the Chechen government (AP, January 12). Akhmadov’s recent visits to several European countries provoked angry rebukes from Moscow and warnings that the Russian government viewed the visits as acts unfriendly toward Russia.