Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 53

Tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Chechnya heated up anew this week following fresh criticism of Moscow leveled by a visiting delegation from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). On March 13 the delegation head, the British Lord Judd, renewed threats that Russia could see its membership in the Council suspended next month if it does not move to halt the fighting in the Caucasus. Predictably, Judd’s threat was denounced by a top Russian human rights official, who said that Moscow has no intention of submitting to a “diktat” by the European human rights body. The latest clash between Moscow and the Council of Europe came, moreover, as the Russian government complained officially over a pro-Chechnya symposium held by French lawmakers. The events of the past few days, which come in the wake of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s weekend visit to St. Petersburg (see the Monitor, March 13), suggest that a host of political forces will continue to pressure Western leaders into taking a more forceful stand against Moscow’s bloody war in the Caucasus.

The Council of Europe’s latest criticism came at the close of the delegation’s fact-finding mission to Chechnya. In remarks made in Moscow on March 13, Judd suggested that delegation members had been especially outraged by the total destruction that they witnessed in Djohar, the Chechen capital still called Grozny by Moscow. “Frankly, I find it beyond comprehension that at the start of the 21st century, a city like Grozny could be systematically destroyed by the forces of its own government.” Judd made a number of demands of Moscow which included an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, the declaration of a ceasefire and the start of peace talks with top Chechen leaders, including President Aslan Maskhadov. He warned that Russia’s membership in the parliamentary assembly would be at stake during a debate on Chechnya planned for early April and noted statements of intent in this regard which have been made by top Russian officials, including Acting President Vladimir Putin. But he warned that “statements are one thing, delivering is another one.” We want those statements “to produce significant, substantial results,” Judd said. “We want to see action.”

Judd also said that “all the requirements” set on Moscow by the Council of Europe “remain on the table”–referring to a January 27 debate on the Chechen war held in Strasbourg by the parliamentary assembly. That debate also followed a fact-finding mission to the North Caucasus by a PACE delegation and reflected a strong desire by some in PACE to suspend Moscow’s membership from the organization. Russian diplomats and political leaders had denounced that initiative, and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov traveled to Strasbourg to defend Russia. In the end the motion failed, an apparent victim of burgeoning sentiment among key U.S. and European leaders that Vladimir Putin’s recent elevation to the Russian presidency provided a valuable opportunity to repair Russian-Western relations. Moscow’s diplomatic victory was tempered only by the warning that the Council of Europe would consider the Chechen war again in April, and that Moscow could still face suspension if it had not made definite moves to end the conflict peacefully (UPI, AFP, Russian agencies, March 13).

Moscow clearly has done nothing to meet those conditions. Indeed, new evidence of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, the Kremlin’s obvious determination to stonewall investigations into the atrocity reports, together with the renewed effort by Russia’s armed forces to win a military victory before the March 26 presidential election, should all strengthen the hand of those European legislators who favor suspending Moscow’s PACE membership.

But this is no guarantee that Moscow will be suspended. Blair’s talks with Putin this past weekend confirmed the determination of Western governments to minimize the impact of Chechnya on broader relations with Russia. At the same time, Moscow can be counted on to mount a furious diplomatic campaign against suspension. This was clear on March 13, when the man the Kremlin calls its top human rights official denounced Judd’s warnings. “Even raising the possibility of exclusion [from the Council of Europe’s parliament] is insulting toward Russia,” Viktor Kalamanov was quoted as saying. He also warned that suspending Russia would have “unpredictable consequences” for relations between Russia and Europe, and intimated that Moscow might cut off even the very limited access to the Caucasus region which it has granted international human rights and aid groups (Itar-Tass, March 13; AFP, March 14).

Russian truculence was in further evidence yesterday when Russian State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev warned that Western human rights observers who wanted to visit Chechnya would henceforth have to pay their way into the region. “We will no longer extend hospitality to any international freeloaders,” Seleznev was quoted as saying (AFP, March 14).