Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 73

Europe’s diplomatic onslaught against Russia over the Kremlin’s bloody war in Chechnya continued this week at the annual UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Differences over Chechnya remain a complicating factor in efforts by both Russia and the European Union to improve relations and to cement a new “strategic partnership” for the post-Yeltsin era. European criticism has also been an ongoing embarrassment for Moscow on the international stage. But for all the rhetoric, concomitant and repeated assurances by European leaders that they will not allow the war in the Caucasus to torpedo broader relations with Russia seems to ensure that, ultimately, Moscow will not bend substantively to European demands either for a quick and peaceful settlement of the Caucasus conflict or for the launching of a credible investigation into reported Russian atrocities in Chechnya.

The EU did, however, take one concrete action this week aimed at reining in Russian actions in the Caucasus. Acting on behalf of the EU, Portugal yesterday put forward a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva urging Moscow to investigate the reports of Russian atrocities in Chechnya. The tabling of the resolution is important because, though a host of countries and human rights organizations at the Geneva forum have sharply criticized Moscow, no country had yet stepped forward to offer a formal resolution directed toward Russian actions in the Caucasus. Indeed, Russian diplomats were reportedly fighting a furious battle to keep discussion of Chechnya off the commission’s discussion agenda, a strategy which Russian officials have also followed at the UN in New York. In opening remarks to the Geneva forum, UN human rights chief Mary Robinson had criticized Russian actions in the Caucasus, but had also lamented the likelihood that Moscow’s political influence would hamstring efforts by delegates in Geneva to address the issue of Russian conduct in Chechnya. Robinson has since visited the North Caucasus and has voiced serious displeasure both with the conditions she found there and with the manner in which Russian officials managed her visit.

There was little information available late yesterday regarding the text draft resolution tabled by the EU in Geneva, but the document apparently calls for condemnations of Moscow if it should refuse to cooperate with the UN-sponsored debate on Chechnya. It also calls for the Russian government “to urgently establish, according to recognized international standards, a national broad-based independent commission of inquiry to promptly investigate alleged violations of human rights and breaches of international humanitarian law” in the Russian Caucasus. According to a UN spokesman, the commission will vote on the five-page text on April 18.

Even yesterday, however, there were intimations that the EU text, as appreciated as it was by human rights groups, had let Russia off too easy. A joint statement by the London-based Amnesty International and the New York-based Human Rights Watch addressed to the UN talks, for example, implied that an inquiry into alleged atrocities in Chechnya conducted by the Russian government alone–as is suggested by the EU resolution–was unlikely to uncover the necessary evidence of crimes committed in Chechnya. The statement made it clear that the two organizations “firmly believe that only an international commission of investigation established by the United Nations will provide the necessary resources and strong guarantees for a thorough, independent and transparent process of systematic collection of evidence.”

Indeed, Russian military prosecutors and state human rights representatives have tried generally to whitewash reports of Russian atrocities in the Caucasus, and there is little reason to believe that they are capable now or in the future of conducting a serious investigation. Russian officials have also intimated that any investigation they undertake will concentrate more on crimes allegedly committed by rebel forces than on those perpetrated by Russian soldiers. Human rights groups have accused Russian forces in the Caucasus of having summarily killed, raped and tortured Chechen civilians during the six-month military campaign in the region.

There is apparently another weakness to the EU resolution. Western diplomats were quoted yesterday as saying that the document left open the possibility that Russia could join in on discussions of the resolution. That could result in the resolution being watered down into a chairman’s statement, which is a milder form of rebuke.

Meanwhile, a delegation representing the separatist Chechen government was also present yesterday in Geneva. It reportedly voiced the readiness of Chechen leaders to begin immediate peace talks with the Russian government. Akhiad Idigov, the European spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, insisted however that any talks with Moscow must include representatives from the international community. The Russian government has repeatedly expressed outrage over the reception by foreign governments or organizations of representatives from the Chechen government. Indeed, Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin’s representative for human rights in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, was also in Geneva yesterday. As he had done following her trip to the Caucasus, Kalamanov reportedly blasted Mary Robinson anew for her criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya. He also urged the human rights commission “not to be hasty in drawing conclusions” about Russian behavior in the Caucasus, and “not to believe rumors and disinformation” (Reuters, AFP, April 11). Russian officials have repeatedly depicted reports of Russian misdeeds in Chechnya as a figment of the Western press’s imagination or as part of a vast Western conspiracy aimed at discrediting Russia and limiting its international influence.

Russia’s UN mission in New York was also active yesterday in trying to counter the accusations being leveled in Geneva against Russian military forces in the Caucasus. Russian diplomats in New York circulated an appeal by twenty-one prominent Russians urging the West not to attempt to isolate Moscow or to impose sanctions because of the military campaign in Chechnya. The appeal, which is reminiscent of the Soviet era, asserted both that the Caucasus war is aimed at combating terrorism and that it had won the backing of the Russian people by dint of President Vladimir Putin’s March 26 election victory. The appeal also said that Russian soldiers in Chechnya were “literally guarding the sound sleep” of their countrymen and that the Russian forces should in fact be enjoying the support of the international community (AP, April 11).