Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 3

The issue of Chechnya figured during the talks in Moscow on January 16 between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Moscow Times on January 17 quoted Merkel as saying during a joint press conference with Putin that the situation in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus were “subjects on which a mutual understanding was not immediately reached” in their meeting and that she would “use every effort” to support proposed EU programs to develop infrastructure in the North Caucasus. “I told the Russian president that very clearly,” Merkel said. “We spoke about it openly and in detail.”

Following the news conference, Merkel met at the German Embassy in Moscow with human rights activists from the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, the Moscow Helsinki Group and Memorial, among other groups. The Moscow Times quoted Valentina Melnikova, head of Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, as saying that Merkel told the activists she understood their position was difficult in the current political climate. “She spoke with us in Russian, which she speaks very well, and she wished us courage and luck,” Melnikova said. Melnikova said they discussed the conflict in Chechnya, the Kremlin’s tightening of control over the political process and growing xenophobia and racism in the country. “She did not give us any promises, but told us that what we are doing is important,” the English-language newspaper quoted Melnikova as saying. Kavkazky Uzel on January 17 quoted Melnikova as saying: “In the conversation with Merkel, I expressed the hope that she would support our anti-war position on the Chechen question. She said, ‘Of course, you are doing something very important.'” The website had quoted Melnikova the previous day as saying prior to her meeting with Merkel that Germany should come out in favor of peace talks to end the Chechen conflict and that Merkel could serve as the initiator of a “road map” to peace in the republic analogous to the one being applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Along with Melnikova, among the activists who met with Merkel at the German Embassy in Moscow on January 16 were Memorial International Society Chairman Arseny Roginsky, Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Askseyeva and Holocaust Fund President Alla Gerber. Roginsky said the German chancellor’s questions “revealed an understanding of such pressing problems as the situation in Chechnya [and] the situation in the army,” and that he had the impression she understood and “felt” Russia better than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. (While in office, Schroeder described Putin as a “flawless democrat” and called on the international community to take a more “differentiated approach” to the Chechen conflict.) Roginsky said he gave Merkel a German translation of Memorial’s book on executions in Moscow during Stalin’s rule and the group’s most recent report on human rights abuses in Ingushetia, which also discusses how the Chechen conflict is spreading across the North Caucasus. “She said that she knows and understands the problem,” Roginsky said.

Prior to the Merkel-Putin meeting, Human Rights Watch called on Merkel to use her meeting with Putin to “pressure Moscow to promote accountability” for abuses in Chechnya. “Chechnya is now the only ongoing armed conflict in Europe, an urgent human rights crisis and the only place on the continent where crimes against humanity are committed against civilians on an almost daily basis as a result of an armed conflict,” Human Rights Watch said in a January 13 press release. “Although atrocities such as forced disappearances, rape, torture and extra-judicial executions by Russian federal troops in Chechnya are committed regularly there, the Russian government has made no real efforts to promote accountability or combat impunity. Chechen forces are also committing grave human rights abuses in the region.”

Holly Carter, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, also called on Merkel to “make it clear to Putin that Germany will not stand back as Russia silences NGOs”—a reference to the draft law on non-governmental organizations which, according to HRW and other human rights groups, expands the grounds for denying registration to or closing Russian NGOs and lays the groundwork for increased government interference with the work of both domestic and foreign NGOs. “Putin still has the time to stop the bill, but will only do so if he hears loudly and clearly from Russia’s international partners that they will not tolerate this attack on civil society,” said Cartner.

State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev took issue with the Human Rights Watch appeal to Merkel. “To suggest that a state official from one country raise such issues at talks seems inappropriate to me,” Kosachev told Ekho Moskvy on January 16. “This looks like an attempt to push this leader to interfere in the domestic affairs of another country. Surely both the regulations concerning non-profit organizations and the Chechen situation are sovereign affairs of the Russian Federation. We are capable of handling these issues on our own, without any assistance from external advisors such as Human Rights Watch.” Kosachev claimed the NGO bill conformed to international standards, and also claimed that the number of kidnappings in Chechnya had “dwindled” over the past year while the number of solved kidnappings had doubled.

The Human Rights Watch call for Merkel to pressure Putin on the NGO bill apparently came too late: The government newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta on January 17 published the text of the NGO legislation with President Putin’s signature at the bottom, showing that he had signed it into law on January 10. As the Moscow Times noted on January 18, the seven-day delay in announcing that the president had signed the controversial legislation into law appeared to be an attempt “to avoid embarrassing questions” from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.