Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 102

The Kremlin’s official outrage machine went into high gear once again this week over alleged Western support for Chechen rebel fighters. But Moscow’s latest broadside appeared oddly directed and unlikely to produce any positive results. It came on May 22, when Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin’s main spokesman for the Caucasus conflict, accused the Council of Europe and one of its leaders of lending moral support to the Chechen political leadership. Yastrzhembsky told reporters that Moscow had intercepted a May 10 telephone conversation between Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and the chairman of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), Lord Russell-Johnston.

Yastrzhembsky depicted the conversation as a PACE effort to circumvent Moscow by negotiating directly with the Chechen leadership and thereby offering moral support to the rebels. “Confidential talks are being held behind Russia’s back aimed at hammering out a coordinated position on the enforcement of negotiations on the end of Russia’s antiterrorist campaign,” Yastrzhembsky told reporters. The Kremlin spokesman described Russell-Johnston’s conversation with Maskhadov as “unacceptable and hypocritical” because “it places Russia on the same level as terrorists.” Russia, he said, “categorically cannot agree with this.”

Aside from the directness of their personal attack on Russell-Johnston, Yastrzhembsky’s remarks were noteworthy for the manner in which they also attempted to blacken the motivations which have led the Council of Europe to criticize Russian behavior in the Caucasus. Yastrzhembsky told reporters that “we now better understand why PACE has made the scandalous decision to exclude the Russian parliamentary delegation from its activities.”

Yastrzhembsky was referring, of course, to PACE’s unexpected vote on April 6 to suspend Russia’s voting rights in the assembly and to begin suspension procedures against Moscow. PACE lawmakers voted as they did on the basis of the Russian government’s failure either to move toward ending the conflict or to address charges that Russian forces are guilty of human rights violations in the Caucasus. Moscow has shown itself unwilling, however, to admit that PACE might have acted out of genuine concern over conditions in the Caucasus, or that the organization’s suspension move may have been justified by Russia’s failure to live up to the human rights standards it itself agreed to when joining the Council of Europe. Russian officials had previously attributed the PACE vote to the “emotionalism” of European lawmakers and to their “ignorance” of circumstances on the ground in Chechnya. But Yastrzhembsky’s latest comments seem to be suggesting that the PACE vote was in fact part of a darker conspiracy between the human rights organization and the Chechen leadership. That explanation, in turn, would seem to fit with broader accusations–voiced particularly by Russian military leaders–that the war in the Caucasus is in fact being driven by Western policymakers as a way to diminish Moscow’s influence in the region while also undermining Russia more generally on the international stage.

A response by Russell-Johnston yesterday appeared to highlight the dubiousness of Yastrzhembsky’s accusations. The PACE head described as “nonsense” the idea that he might be colluding with terrorists. More to the point, perhaps, he said that he had “informed Russian officials orally and in writing about conversations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov,” that he had given copies of his correspondence with Maskhadov to State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, and that he had also discussed the contacts with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Moreover, Russell-Johnston said that his conversations with Maskhadov were aimed in large part “at releasing Russian prisoners held by the rebels.” He suggested that he found it odd that Moscow would object to that sort of mission. He also, finally, said that he had in fact turned down an invitation from Maskhadov to meet with him, and that he had done so out of respect for international law and–presumably–Russian sensitivities.

Yastrzhembsky’s May 22 remarks appear to be but the latest act in the acrimonious drama which has been played out between Moscow and the Council of Europe over Chechnya. The European human rights organization has been one of the few international bodies to confront Moscow directly over its bloody war in the Caucasus, and Russian officials have fiercely denounced PACE’s April 6 suspension vote. Moscow appeared nevertheless to get the last laugh when foreign ministers from the Council of Europe’s member countries failed to back up PACE during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov earlier this month. Indeed, the May 10-11 meeting in Strasbourg was viewed by Moscow as a considerable diplomatic victory and a vindication of its belief that European governments no longer have any stomach for a confrontation with Russia over the Caucasus war.

A commission of PACE parliamentarians, meeting on May 15, denounced the lack of backbone demonstrated by European minister during the May 10-11 meeting with Ivanov (AFP, May 16). But their anger is likely to have little effect. As one Dutch commentary noted: “The Council of Europe, after all, is no more than Europe’s democratic conscience. Important, yet powerless. It can occupy the moral high grounds, but the battle of realpolitik is fought behind closed doors.” And that realpolitik, right now, is dictating that European governments sweep Chechnya under the rug to avoid tensions with Moscow that might threaten cooperation in other areas, including the European Union’s intention of stepping up its eastward enlargement (Radio Netherlands, May 12).