Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 46

Vladimir Putin’s BBC interview was broadcast as tensions between Russia and the West over Chechnya began to heat up anew. At a meeting of EU and Russian diplomats on March 2 in Lisbon, and again at unprecedented three-way EU-US-Russian talks in the same city a day later, Western countries renewed their push for a humane end to the Caucasus conflict. The two-day Lisbon talks, moreover, were followed on March 4 by a new demand from the Clinton administration that Moscow fully address charges that its troops are guilty of widespread abuses in Chechnya. The U.S. concerns were reportedly outlined both in a February 29 letter from U.S. President Bill Clinton to Putin–the substance of which was made public on March 4–and in an address delivered in New Hampshire the same day by U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel Berger. The latest flurry of diplomatic activity over Chechnya is driven in large part by the increasing body of evidence that Russian troops are guilty of atrocities in the Caucasus. The upsurge in Western criticism comes despite recent efforts by European and U.S. leaders to mend relations with Moscow.

The talks in Lisbon were dominated by the subject of Chechnya, though discussions were also held on the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and other important international issues. The Western participants clearly emerged from the two days of talks less than satisfied with Moscow’s response to their concerns about developments in Chechnya. EU and U.S. leaders had been hoping to secure firm commitments from Moscow that international monitors–including representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)–would be given full access to the conflict region. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov did make concessions which could allow for limited international monitoring of the situation in Chechnya–reportedly agreeing to an upcoming visit by the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, detailing Council of Europe representatives to take part in a Russian government investigation of reported atrocities in Chechnya, and establishing an OSCE mission and better access for humanitarian organizations to Chechnya. But French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine complained that Russia had taken only “small steps” toward meeting Western demands. Moscow, he said, has not done enough.

Indeed, Ivanov appeared to continue Moscow’s Orwellian policy of depicting the ugliness of Russian military operations in Chechnya as a fiction of the West’s collective imagination. He repeated old and empty arguments that Western reporters who got into Chechnya disseminated “false and twisted information,” and claimed that “Russia has always been open to settling the situation in Chechnya.” More extraordinarily, perhaps, he asserted that the Kremlin had “never” blocked either NGOs or journalists from entering Chechnya, and challenged reports to the contrary as “inaccurate and distorted.” Finally, he resorted to now standard Russian claims that Moscow’s war in the Caucasus is directed against “international terrorism,” and that Western countries should be making “common cause” with Moscow (Reuters, AP, AFP, Russian agencies, March 2-3).

In remarks made on the eve of the Lisbon talks, the EU’s commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, warned that the West could not simply pass over human rights abuses committed by Russia in Chechnya in order to focus on building a strategic relationship with Moscow. Patten, who has been among Europe’s harshest critics of Russian actions in the Caucasus, told a British daily that “even if only half the stories [of Russian atrocities] were true, they would still be horrific. We cannot behave with Russia as though nothing untoward had happened” (The Guardian, March 1).

Yet neither the EU nor the United States appears willing to take the sort of concrete punitive steps which might actually bring about a change in Russian behavior in the Caucasus. Indeed, last week’s talks were reminiscent of a period in late January when both the EU and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held crucial meetings devoted to Chechnya. The runup to those meetings had been tense, as Moscow faced the threat of both EU sanctions and a possible suspension of its membership in PACE (see the Monitor, January 26, 28). In the end, however, neither organization took action against Russia. Moscow’s policy of stonewalling Western demands over Chechnya had won the Kremlin a diplomatic victory, and in the days which followed some Russian commentators expressed open contempt for the West’s earlier threats and warnings. Last week’s proceedings in Lisbon could receive a similar reception in Moscow, and could compel Western leaders to ponder anew the price that they are willing to pay for friendly relations with Russia.