Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 234

Yesterday’s oral onslaught from Moscow came as foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries and Russia gathered for talks today in Berlin. There is little doubt that the war in Chechnya will be among the topics which dominate those talks. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairman Knut Vollebaek, who is also Norway’s foreign minister, was reported yesterday to be on his way to Berlin to brief the G-7 ministers on his just-completed visit to the Caucasus region. The message will apparently be less than cheery. In remarks to reporters aboard his plane yesterday, Vollebaek reportedly described the conflict that he saw in Chechnya as “gruesome” and underlined the need to get an immediate ceasefire (AFP, December 16).

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, a cog in the vast and at times Orwellian disinformation campaign spun by Russia to justify its crackdown in the Caucasus, suggested yesterday in Berlin that Moscow would approach the G-7 talks with “an open and honest stance on Chechnya.” But such talk is unlikely to wash with Western officials, who have had to fight tooth and nail just to get a few observer teams into the Caucasus and who have been confronted repeatedly now with official Russian misinformation about the aims and consequences of Moscow’s military operations there.

Indeed, the tide of opinion appears to be turning more strongly against Russia. France, Germany and Britain, together with the OSCE’s Vollebaek and elements within the EU leadership have long taken the hardest line against Russia’s Caucasus campaign. And yesterday U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested that the Clinton administration–which has trailed the Europeans in criticizing Russia about Chechnya–might be firming up its own position. She said that she would deliver a “strong message” to Ivanov when she meets with him today, and intimated that the Clinton administration is now considering tying U.S. Export-Import bank loans to Russian behavior in the Caucasus (AP, December 16). Even Japan, which had previously held to the view that the Chechen conflict is Russia’s internal affair, signaled yesterday that it was changing its stance. Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono reportedly conveyed Tokyo’s new harder line to Ivanov in talks they held yesterday in Berlin (Kyodo, December 16).

But it is unclear whether any of this will make a difference. To date Russian officials have rebuffed Western criticism and shrugged off threats of economic sanctions. There were reports yesterday that the EU intends on January 24 to consider a tougher regime of trade sanctions against Moscow. But a spokesman for Ivanov responded only that trade sanctions would in no way help to resolve the conflict in Chechnya. “If somebody considers it possible to settle the situation in Chechnya through sanctions, so be it,” he was quoted as saying. Last week’s EU summit agreed to limit EU aid to Russia to priority areas such as human rights, the rule of law, and support for civil and nuclear safety. EU leaders also resolved to look into the suspension of some provisions of the EU’s partnership and cooperation agreement with Russia and the stricter application of trade rules. EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said yesterday that the European Commission was also considering the suspension of Russia’s most favored nation status in certain trade areas. But the January 24 date for consideration of these measures gives Moscow plenty of breathing room, and may even motivate Russian leaders to try to solidify a military triumph in Chechnya before that date.