The political struggle between Russia and Europe’s main human rights organization, the Council of Europe, looks set to resume again in Strasbourg today with the start of a meeting of the council’s Committee of Ministers. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is scheduled to take part in the two-day affair, which council spokesmen have indicated will focus in large part on Russia’s war in Chechnya. Ivanov is scheduled to hold an informal meeting today with Walter Schwimmer, the council’s Austrian secretary general. Tomorrow morning ministers from the forty-one-member council will meet formally. Russia’s war in Chechnya will apparently top the discussion agenda, but the ministers are expected also to discuss the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe (Council of Europe web site).
This week’s events in Strasbourg follow up the April 6 decision of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to suspend Russia’s voting rights in the organization and to begin procedures which could lead to Russia’s suspension from the Council. It is unclear precisely what measures the ministers committee will take this week in that context. During a visit to the United States last week, however, Schwimmer suggested that the council is likely to issue a new warning that Russia does indeed face indefinite suspension if it does not make big improvements in the human rights situation in the Caucasus.
Schwimmer, who listed the war in Chechnya as the council’s top area of concern, praised Russia for having taken some steps toward improving human rights in Chechnya, but complained that Moscow has failed to meet other council demands. Schwimmer also said that Europeans are “fully aware” that the situation in Chechnya had not been democratic before Russia began its military operations there. But, in a rebuff to repeated Russian justifications for the war effort, he also said that the earlier conditions were no excuse for the way that Russian forces have conducted themselves in the Caucasus. Moscow has claimed that lawlessness in Chechnya compelled Russia to launch the crackdown, and Russian officials have repeatedly accused Western officials of either ignorance or hypocrisy for allegedly ignoring this fact (AP, May 5).
Indeed, that seems likely to be the line Ivanov will take during this week’s talks. Moscow denounced PACE’s April 6 suspension decision, and is counting on a reticence among the governments of the council’s member countries to quash the suspension drive. That Ivanov will continue at least in large part to hew to Moscow’s hard line regarding the Chechnya conflict during this week’s meetings was suggested last week by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said on May 6 that Ivanov was going to Strasbourg to “explain, but not to justify [Russia’s] position” (Russian agencies, May 6).
Vladimir Kalamanov, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Chechnya, evidenced a similar attitude the same day. Kalamanov’s comments were directed on this occasion not at the Council of Europe, but at Mary Robinson, the UN’s chief human rights official and an outspoken critic of Russian behavior in the Caucasus. Kalamanov, who has taken potshots at Robinson before, accused her on May 6 of assuming a disrespectful tone toward Russia over Chechnya and of equating the Russian government “with bandits and terrorists” (Moscow’s standard term for Chechen rebels) (Russian agencies, May 6). Kalamanov, it is worth noting, heads a human rights investigative team in the Caucasus that is overseeing the work of military prosecutors there and that is ultimately to include experts from the Council of Europe.
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