Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 230

Efforts to toughen the European Union’s position toward Russia’s war in Chechnya fizzled over the weekend as EU leaders stuck by and large to the policy they held going into the Helsinki summit meeting: that is, issuing statements criticizing Moscow for its Caucasus crackdown but not threatening sanctions or other punitive action. The outcome was a bit of a surprise, given the strong stand which several key European governments have taken on the unacceptability of Russian actions in Chechnya. In the lead-up to the historic EU summit meeting there had been suggestions that European leaders–galvanized particularly by the Russian military’s recent ultimatum to Djohar’s civilians–might reach agreement on economic sanctions punishing Moscow for its brutal behavior in the Caucasus. Indeed, there had been reports that a delegation of top EU officials might travel to Moscow on December 11, at the close of the two-day summit, to present Russian leaders personally with the EU’s concerns over the conflict. The possibility of decisive EU action toward Chechnya appeared to dovetail with calls by some European leaders–including EU foreign policy supremo Javier Solana in particular–for the EU to take a “less declaratory” approach to international problems.

In the event, however, the summit’s participants took a less confrontational approach. EU leaders did agree on December 10 to a strongly worded statement which called the Kremlin’s campaign in Chechnya “totally unacceptable” and which urged Moscow “to start forthwith political dialogue with the elected Chechen authorities.” EU leaders also said that the Union would transfer some technical aid funds to humanitarian purposes, suspend some aspects of a scientific and technology agreement, and limit some trade relationships under its partnership and cooperation agreement with Moscow. But the statement contained no real threat of possible wider sanctions against Russia. Indeed, some reports suggested that even the modest measures mentioned by EU officials still require final approval.

The plan to send the high-level delegation to Moscow, moreover, was also set aside. Instead, the EU protest was delivered in written form by EU officials to the Russian ambassador to Finland. EU officials suggested that they would not confront Moscow directly with the protest statement until this week’s summit of G-7 countries and Russia in Berlin. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is expected to meet with his Western counterparts at that event (International agencies, December 10-11; International Herald Tribune, December 11).

The EU’s failure to take a stronger stance regarding Chechnya appeared to be the result of several factors. One involved a last-second agreement by which Turkey was offered a special candidate status for EU membership. That deal, which was finalized only after Solana made an unplanned trip to Ankara on the eve of the summit, appeared to push the issue of Russia and Chechnya a bit further down the summit’s agenda. Solana, moreover, was to have been a key participant in the EU delegation tentatively scheduled to travel to Moscow on December 10 (Reuters, December 11). This was the date on which the Russian ultimatum to Djohar’s civilian residents was to have gone into effect, and the visit of the EU delegation was intended in part to convince Moscow not to follow through on its threat to begin leveling the Chechen capital that day. Strong international criticism of the ultimatum, however, had already caused Moscow to back off the deadline date.

European leaders were said to be concerned, finally, that Moscow might simply refuse to permit the visit by the high-ranking EU delegation on December 10. This presented a risk of a diplomatic embarrassment that EU leaders were apparently unwilling to take (Reuters, December 10). The EU’s hesitancy on this point, moreover, appeared to reflect the broader reality that–for all the tough talk which preceded the summit–European countries remain divided over the degree to which they should confront Moscow for its bloody crackdown in the Caucasus. On the one hand, EU leaders feel, as does the Clinton administration in Washington, that they have few real levers of influence over Russian behavior. On the other hand, they worry, also as does the Clinton administration, that sanctions could cause a full diplomatic rupture with Moscow–a development which they believe is fraught with potentially dangerous consequences.