Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 213

Amid the broader tensions between Russia and the West over Moscow’s crackdown in Chechnya, relations between Moscow and both France and Britain have become especially strained in recent days. The diplomatic face-off between Moscow and Paris has been driven primarily by the appearance in France last week of a Chechen government representative. Tensions between Russia and Britain, meanwhile, have risen as the result of an incident in which several Russian reporters were badly roughed up by pro-Chechen demonstrators in London. The level of invective coming out of Moscow in both instances suggests that rancor could linger between Russia and the two European countries even after–or if–Russia and the West are finally able to put the Chechnya conflict behind them.

The French-Russian wrangle occurred after Ilyas Akhmadov, the Chechen government’s foreign minister, arrived in Paris on November 8. Akhmadov entered France without a visa or an official status, as a guest of the parliamentary Greens party. He was subsequently admitted to the National Assembly, where he held a press conference and called on the Council of Europe to consider banning Russia from its ranks. He also warned Western governments that their economic aid to Russia could be funding Moscow’s air and ground offensive in Chechnya. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine did not receive Akhmadov officially (though one high-ranking ministry official did). A Russian report suggested that Vedrine and Akhmadov had talked at the National Assembly. Furthermore, Vedrine did state publicly his belief that the Chechen point of view needed to be heard in France. On November 13 the ministry issued a one-month visa to Akhmadov.

Not unexpectedly, Moscow responded with a string of denunciations. On November 11 the French ambassador to Russia was called into the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he was presented with a strong protest against Akhmadov’s Paris visit. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev reportedly described Akhmadov’s reception at the French Foreign Ministry as “an unfriendly act [toward] Russia, an actual connivance with the Chechen separatists and terrorists.” A Russian Foreign Ministry statement warned that the incident could have a “negative impact” on French-Russian relations (Itar-Tass, November 14; Reuters, November 12).

Akhmadov’s reception in Paris appeared to dovetail with the French government’s ever sharper criticism of Russian military actions in Chechnya–a stand by French leaders that one Russian newspaper described as the most severe in the West (Izvestia, November 11). Following Akhmadov’s appearance at the National Assembly on November 9, for example, Vedrine indicated that Western leaders intended during the upcoming Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul to pressure Russia into moderating its policies in Chechnya. French President Jacques Chirac followed that up on November 13 with a description of Russian military actions in Chechnya as a “tragic error,” and an issue which he was “sure” would be raised at the OSCE summit (AFP, November 14).

On November 11 Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who had visited Paris not long before Akhmadov’s arrival, criticized Vedrine for failing to meet commitments allegedly made to Moscow regarding the Chechen conflict. He accused Paris of “toying with terrorism” and suggested that the French policy is a “dangerous” one which could have “serious consequences.” Ivanov also warned France and the West against allowing differences over Chechnya to divert OSCE summit participants from completing work on the European security charter, the amended Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and other documents. Without elaborating, he suggested that an effort by the West to turn the summit into some sort of an inquest into Russian activities in Chechnya would carry serious consequences (Russian agencies, November 11). That same warning has since been issued by other Russian leaders. They too have left unspecified what consequences Moscow might have in mind.