Hopes of a renewed partnership between Russia and the West in the wake of Putin’s election victory are likely to meet their sternest and most immediate test over the same issue which most strained relations between the two sides in the runup to the Russian presidential election: Moscow’s war in Chechnya. That Putin was in no hurry to accommodate Western concerns on this score was made clear on March 27, one day after his election victory, when he reaffirmed his intention to continue the war to its bloody end.
Moreover, the war in Chechnya was to be the central issue in a series of high-level contacts between Russia and the world community scheduled for the first week of April. Those contacts were set to begin on March 31, when UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson was to launch a four-day visit to Russia which was to include a trip to the North Caucasus. Robinson has been a forceful critic of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, and arrangements for her fact-finding mission were finalized only after a long diplomatic struggle with Moscow. The former Irish president is expected to take conclusions drawn from her trip back to the annual session of the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Russia has fought a furious diplomatic battle in Geneva to block discussion of the war in Chechnya. Various international human rights groups charge that Russian troops are guilty of systematic beatings, torture and, on occasion, rape, of Chechen civilians. Robinson has been among those who have pressed Moscow to allow a full international investigation of the allegations.
Moscow also faced yet another high-profile look at its actions in Chechnya during a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) scheduled for April 3. Russian diplomats had waged a desperate and bare-knuckled political battle to head off criticism of its Chechnya operations–and a suspension vote–during a debate on the subject which took place this past January. A similar scenario has developed in the lead-up to the April 3 debate, as Russian officials have belligerently warned Europe’s leading human rights organization not to seek any disciplinary action against Moscow for its war in Chechnya. Among other things, Russian officials have declared that Moscow could break off relations with the Council of Europe of its own volition if the Council seeks to move against Russia. In addition, Russian officials have warned that any suspension of Moscow’s PACE membership could lead the Russian government to exclude PACE representatives entirely from international aid and human rights efforts in the Caucasus. Russian belligerence on this score has suggested that Putin’s election victory and professed desire for cooperation with West may have little impact on tensions over the ongoing war in the Caucasus.