A roundtable on Chechnya was held in Strasbourg under the auspices of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on March 21. The meeting, which was organized by Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross – with, according to Kommersant, “active help” from Russia’s State Duma and presidential administration – went off “according to the Russian scenario,” Kommersant correspondent Alla Barakhova reported in the newspaper’s March 22 edition.
The roundtable, which was called “Peace in Chechnya” and involved more than 40 participants, featured a large contingent of pro-Moscow Chechen politicians, including Chechen President Alu Alkhanov, Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov, Chechen Vice Premier Eli Isaev, Federation Council members Akhmar Zavgaev and Musa Umarov, State Duma Deputy Ruslan Yamadaev, Chechen human rights ombudsman Lema Khasuev and the former Russian presidential special representative for human rights in Chechnya Abdul-Khakim Sultygov. Chechnya’s chief prosecutor, Vladimir Kravchenko, was also on hand. Among the Russian officials who participated were State Duma International Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev, who heads Russia’s PACE delegation, and Vladimir Lukin, Russian human hights ombudsman. Also among the roundtable’s participants were independent Russian human rights activists – Svetlana Gannushkina of Memorial and Tatyana Lokshina of the Moscow Helsinki Group. No one representing independent Chechen human rights groups or the Chechen separatists participated.
Alkhanov, who had originally said he would not attend the roundtable, told reporters just prior to its start that there was “no need to discuss political issues” given that “the Chechen republic has clearly determined its political, legal and socio-economic course by approving in a referendum the constitution of the republic, where all these provisions are clearly determined,” Itar-Tass reported on March 21. The proceedings apparently went according to Alkhanov’s wishes, at least judging by a telephone interview he gave to Interfax just after the roundtable adjourned. Alkhanov told the news agency that it had been a “a frank, calm conversation” characterized by an “undoubtedly constructive mood.” “I and the others who took part in the ‘roundtable’ will certainly report in detail about everything that occurred today, taking account of the fact that the exchange of views was closed to the media,” he added.
Another top Russian official in attendance, Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, was upbeat about the roundtable, telling Itar-Tass during a break it was “quite representative” and that its participants were “authoritative”. Lukin said such meetings should become routine: “It would be good to hold such meetings regularly and convene the next meeting before the end of the year in Grozny, after the new Chechen parliament is elected,” he said. Tadeus Iwinski, Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly and a member of its Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, expressed hope that the roundtable’s results would help facilitate the holding of parliamentary elections in Chechnya and suggested that future roundtables be held in Grozny. PACE rapporteur on Chechnya Rudolf Bindig told RIA Novosti that most of the main topics, including human rights violations, were discussed during the roundtable. However, the former PACE rapporteur on Chechnya, Lord Judd, expressed regret that separatist representatives were not able to take part in roundtable.
Tatyana Lokshina of the Moscow Helsinki Group reportedly provided the only fireworks during the roundtable. Kommersant reported on March 22 that she urged a halt to the political process in Chechnya, the imposition of a state of emergency in the republic and negotiations under the auspices of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to end inter-Chechen hostilities. Not surprisingly, this proposal was greeted “extremely negatively” by some of the pro-Moscow Chechen and Russian officials in attendance. According to Kommersant, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, the former Russian presidential special representative for human rights in Chechnya, and Leonid Slutsky, a State Duma deputy with the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), accused Lokshina of speaking “as a representative of the separatists.”
Utro.ru on March 22 quoted Andreas Gross as saying that “independent Chechen organizations” and London-based Chechen rebel representative Akhmed Zakaev had been invited to the roundtable but refused. “These people are not accustomed to civilized means of communication,” Gross said. The website noted that the two requirements for participation in the roundtable were renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Russia’s territorial integrity. RIA Novosti on March 21 quoted Konstantin Kosachev as saying at the end of the roundtable that PACE had not officially invited “representatives of Maskhadov and Zakaev,” but that separatist representatives had been invited “privately” to participate in the roundtable as “ordinary Chechens,” not separatist representatives. Separatist officials have indicated that they refused to participate in the discussion because of the conditions imposed by PACE that altered the format of the discussions. Instead of attending the roundtable as representatives of the separatist movement, PACE insisted that Zakaev and Umar Khambiev attend as representatives of the Chechen diaspora in an effort to appease Moscow and downplay the political roots of the conflict. In addition, the death of Maskhadov also created a temporary political vacuum in the separatist leadership that hindered their ability to propose alternative discussion formats to PACE in order to reach a compromise over their participation.
For its part, the Council of Chechen Non-Governmental Organizations said in a statement released several days prior to the roundtable that holding such a meeting almost immediately after the murder of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, along with the Russian side’s refusal to negotiate with supporters of Chechen independence, would not help improve the situation in the republic. “In Chechnya, more than 200,000 people…have been killed, disappeared, [or] become invalids or cripples,” read the council’s statement, as quoted by the Kavkazky Uzel website on March 19. “In our view, the holding of forums, ‘roundtables’, conferences and other undertakings carried out by various European and international institutions – designed, above all, to create the appearance of a political process – hides from the world and Russian societies the truth about the events going on in Chechnya and the continuing massive human rights violations.”
Likewise, a group of Chechen human rights activists – Ruslan Badalov, chairman of the Chechen National Salvation Committee; Libkan Bazaeva, chairwoman of the Woman’s Dignity public organization; Dokka Itslaev, head of the Urus-Martan regional chapter of the Memorial human rights group – responded to their invitation to the roundtable with an open letter to PACE Secretary General Bruno Haller saying that the event would be “completely pointless” without representatives of Chechnya’s separatists. “We are not politicians and do not represent any of the opposing sides,” the letter stated. “We are human rights activists and believe that an indispensable condition for conducting the roundtable is the presence…of representatives of the Chechen [separatist] side. We do not believe it possible to participate in an undertaking of this kind, inasmuch as it is taking place at time when the body of the popularly elected president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Aslan Maskhadov, who we strongly believe was the most consistent supporter of peace in the Chechen Republic, has not yet been handed over [to his family].”
Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov told Interfax on March 21 that Frants Klintsevich, the State Duma deputy who heads the Chechen branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, had invited Umar Khambiev, the general representative of the Chechen separatist president abroad, to visit Chechnya. According to Dzhabrailov, Klintsevich announced that he was extending an official invitation to Khambiev to be his personal guest to visit Chechnya to see for himself the changes that had taken place there, would guarantee Khambiev safe passage while in the republic and arrange for him a meeting with his brother, Magomed Khambiev, who was defense minister in Maskhadov’s government and had voluntarily laid down his arms in 2004.
The significance of Klintsevich’s reported demarche, if any, remains to be seen. In any case, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov told reporters midway through the PACE roundtable that he disagreed with “those who say that we should swallow the bait and hold talks with terrorists,” RIA Novosti reported on March 21. “Terrorism has just one face – inhumanity,” Alkhanov said, reiterating his oft-stated view that a “policy of double standards towards those involved in terrorist acts is unacceptable.”