Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 94

Russia appeared to dodge yet another diplomatic bullet this week when European foreign ministers meeting in Strasbourg backed off an earlier move by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which threatened to oust Russia from Europe’s premier human rights organization. The Council’s Committee of Ministers, which met on May 10-11 in Strasbourg, held informal talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Wednesday and then conducted a formal session yesterday which was devoted in large part to the war in Chechnya.

This week’s discussions were a follow-up to last month’s decision by PACE to strip the Russian delegation of its voting rights and to start suspension procedures against Moscow. The move–which would be unprecedented in the council’s history–must, however, ultimately be approved by the governments of the Council of Europe’s member countries. This week’s developments appeared to confirm Moscow in its belief that, despite widespread revulsion in Europe over Russia’s brutal crackdown in the Caucasus, this is unlikely to happen. Indeed, in his own comments to reporters yesterday, Ivanov suggested that the issue of Russia’s suspension from the council had not even been raised during his talks in Strasbourg. The language used by the committee members in the gathering’s final communique, moreover, appeared to affirm that assertion. The document was almost obsequious in the way it welcomed the steps that it said Russia had undertaken in response to European concerns over Chechnya.

In fact, the committee’s final communique suggested an almost surprising willingness by European ministers–one which contrasted sharply with the attitude of PACE lawmakers last month–to accept at face value Moscow’s assertions about both the situation on the ground in Chechnya, and the Russian government’s declared motivations and goals in the Caucasus. The tone of the committee document was all the more jarring insofar as it came amid continued bombing by Russian aircraft of targets in Chechnya, and on a day in which Russian security forces launched a raid against one of the few major Russian media organizations which has dared to criticize the government’s policy in the Caucasus.

The final communique nevertheless “welcomed the contribution” of Moscow to the Council of Europe “in regard to human rights, democratization and the rule of law.” The document likewise “welcomed” an April 13 statement by President Vladimir Putin declaring that “all facts of violations of human rights and abuses in the course of the antiterrorist operation” in the North Caucasus are being “thoroughly investigated” by Russian authorities. More generally, the ministers concluded at the close of their discussions with Ivanov that “measures were being taken by Russia toward meeting the concerns of the Council of Europe, including those raised by the Parliamentary Assembly.” Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, meanwhile, said that Ivanov had given assurances that nongovernmental organizations will be able to gain easy access to Chechnya. Ivanov himself spoke of the “maximal openness” that Moscow has displayed to the international community in matters related to Chechnya, and claimed that no government had ever before revealed so much to the world about a domestic difficulty of this sort (Council of Europe press communique, Reuters, AP, AFP, Russian agencies, May 11).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is simply untrue. Russian cooperation has been given only in the most grudging fashion to the international community and Russian authorities continue to do their best to manage all information coming out of the North Caucasus. Russian intractability in this area was amply on display during UN human rights chief Mary Robinson’s recent visit to the Caucasus, when the former Irish president was denied access to nearly all the sites she wished to see (see the Monitor, March 31, April 4). Other international aid and human rights groups have had similar experiences. Moscow has also done little, Putin’s pledge notwithstanding, to investigate and prosecute crimes involving Russian troops in the Caucasus. The Russian Military Prosecutor’s office, which is conducting the investigations, has moved on only a handful of human rights abuse cases, and appears to be fixated instead primarily on looking into such crimes as traffic violations and the accidental discharge of weapons. Even the Russian president’s special human rights envoy, who has been charged with overseeing these investigations into the alleged rights abuses, has admitted that his office is understaffed and that he is getting virtually no cooperation from military authorities (New York Times, May 7).

Such arguments may be irrelevant at this point, however. European governments, like their American counterpart, appear on the whole to have decided that it is more important to befriend post-Yeltsin Russia than to confront it. Indeed, even before yesterday’s committee session, diplomatic sources in Strasbourg were quoted as saying that Moscow faces no real threat of punishment from the Council of Europe at this time. One council official said that “sanctions are not on the ministers’ agenda.” He added that the European foreign ministers are a “very, very long way away from the mood of the parliamentarians [in PACE]. They will be looking at ways to help Russia rather than penalize it” (Reuters, May 11). Such statements would seem only to give substance to dismissive claims by Russian diplomats, voiced after PACE’s decision last month to begin suspension proceedings against Moscow, that the European lawmakers were driven by emotion rather than by the kind of pragmatism which Moscow believed would lead Western governments ultimately to turn a blind eye to developments in the Caucasus.