Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 222

A meeting of Western foreign ministers which many had thought would be dominated by issues related to Yugoslavia–and possibly also by European irritation over a perceived niggardliness on the part of Washington–instead wound up with Russia on the hot seat for its continued military operations in Chechnya and other issues. Indeed, reports suggested that the two-day meeting of foreign ministers from the fifty-five-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which wound up yesterday in Vienna, had ended with acrimony redolent of the Cold War.

The bitter conclusion of the meeting must have been a disappointment for Moscow, which has enjoyed the benefits of a diplomatic honeymoon of sorts–particularly in its relations with Europe–since Vladimir Putin’s rise to the Russian presidency at the beginning of this year. In their rush to embrace Putin and mend fences with Moscow, European and North American leaders have in large part put aside their earlier sharp criticism of Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya. But this week’s OSCE meeting unexpectedly hearkened back to some of the contentious encounters between Russian and Western officials which occurred in 1999, when the Caucasus war (on top of differences over Yugoslavia) threatened a diplomatic rupture between the two sides. Indeed, there was some suggestion this week that it was the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic and the return of Yugoslavia to the OSCE–a move made official at this week’s meeting with the attendance of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica–that had turned the spotlight back on Russia. One Western diplomats was quoted in this context as saying that “last year’s Russia is not this year’s Russia,” and that “now its the ex-Soviet zone which is providing the main source of concern” for the OSCE (AFP, November 27).

A host of Western ministers yesterday put the blame for the failed meeting on Moscow, accusing Russian delegates of having scuttled agreements on Chechnya, on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova, and on the rights of children. The failure to resolve those differences meant that the OSCE gathering failed to issue a standard concluding declaration. Instead, in an unusual departure, Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner issued a statement which included a condemnation of the continuing loss of life in Chechnya, as well as criticism of Russia’s failure to meet earlier commitments regarding the withdrawal of troops from Georgia and Moldova. Those Russian government had made those commitments during last year’s contentious OSCE summit in Istanbul. Among other things, the Russian delegation signed a document in Turkey which reaffirmed the urgency of a political settlement in Chechnya and that permitted the OSCE to redeploy its Assistance Group of experts in the Caucasus republic. Russia also signed on to a landmark charter agreement which proclaimed conflicts in one state to be a legitimate concern of all.

One year later Moscow has failed either to honor that commitment or to satisfy more general demands for an immediate ceasefire in Chechnya and a negotiated end to the conflict. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov used the Vienna meeting to restate Moscow’s earlier, harsh rejections of what it has denounced as the West’s interference in Russia’s internal affairs. Ivanov’s protestations on this score–on Monday he criticized Western leaders for presuming to “lecture” Russia–appeared to embody Moscow’s failure to meet another of the commitments it made in Istanbul. That was contained in a landmark agreement, which Moscow also signed, which proclaimed conflicts in one OSCE state to be a legitimate concern of other OSCE countries.

In fact, the performance of Ivanov and other Russian diplomats in Vienna appeared designed to play to anti-Western sentiment at home–while also bolstering Putin’s image at home of a man ready to defy the West. But Ivanov appeared also be underscoring Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the OSCE’s focus on political developments in the former Soviet bloc and its preference for the organization to turn its attention to what Moscow thinks the OSCE should be doing: transforming itself into the primary security organization in Europe. Thus, even as Ivanov warned the West against trying to dictate to Moscow he also accused the OSCE of “reviewing only humanitarian and human rights issues and only in the eastern part of the Euro-Atlantic space.” A Western diplomat said that Moscow had argued for the organization to put more emphasis on such activities as security and economic cooperation. “Historically they view it as a security organization which provides stability,” he added (Reuters, November 28; AFP, November 27-28; AP, BBC, November 28; Russian agencies, November 27-28).

It is unclear whether this week’s acrimonious meeting in Vienna will have an adverse impact on broader Russian relations with European countries or whether leading Western governments will again turn the war in Chechnya–and Russia’s failure to meet other of its OSCE-related commitments–into a point of friction with Moscow. But it seems unlikely. The French government, which had long been the most vocal critic of Russian military actions in the Caucasus, only recently welcomed Putin to Paris and made every effort to mend fences. Likewise, recent meetings between Putin and both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi have shown no evidence of tensions over the issues which divided Russian and Western diplomats in Vienna. Indeed, in the wake of Putin’s late October visit to Paris–where he attended a Russian-EU summit meeting–some Russian newspapers reveled in what they suggested was Russia’s new-found leverage over Europe in the area of energy supplies. Some argued that Europe’s mounting energy crisis–and the concomitant imperative to procure additional supplies of gas from Russia–had “brought Russia and the European Union closer together” and served to quiet European criticism of the war in Chechnya (AFP, October 3; see the Monitor, November 3).