SURPRISE VOTE AGAINST RUSSIA’S CHECHNYA POLICY

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 12

SURPRISE VOTE AGAINST RUSSIA’S CHECHNYA POLICY

An overconfident and overbearing Russian delegation lost the first major international test of Moscow’s Chechnya policy to occur since the March 23 constitutional referendum. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted unexpectedly on April 2 to recommend creation of an international tribunal to try both Russians and Chechens accused of war crimes. The lopsided vote (97-27) stood in dramatic contrast to the victory celebrated by the Russians in January, when they succeeded in blocking a challenge to the referendum led by the Parliamentary Assembly’s own rapporteur on Chechnya. Their action, in effect, forced his resignation (see Chechnya Weekly, February 6).

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian delegation, responded to the April 2 setback by declaring that Moscow will henceforth simply refuse to discuss the Chechnya issue with the Council of Europe. The former rapporteur on Chechnya, Britain’s Lord Frank Judd, told Jamestown in an April 4 telephone interview that if Russia carries out that threat, “then the Parliamentary Assembly will have to discuss it without them.”

Several knowledgeable observers told Jamestown that Rogozin and his colleagues lost on April 2 because they finally exhausted the patience of their West European colleagues. Human rights leader Olivier Dupuis said in an April 7 telephone interview that the Parliamentary Assembly was “fed up” with the unresponsiveness of the Russians. “They were always promising to bring criminals to trial and the like, but they never did anything,” he said. (Dupuis is also an elected member of the European Parliament, a body separate from the Parliamentary Assembly.) A Chechen separatist leader now living in Paris told Jamestown that the Russians had misunderstood the importance of “personal relations” in the Assembly and had defeated themselves by “insulting” the patient Lord Judd.

Rogozin offered a different explanation. He told correspondent Svetlana Sukhova of the Russian weekly Itogi that, on the day before the crucial vote, it seemed that the Russian delegation had convinced enough of the other national delegations to block the tribunal. But the majority then turned against Moscow’s position, he said, because of the Russians’ insistence that a strong critic of the U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein lead the Assembly’s debate on that subject. In his phone conversation with Jamestown, Lord Judd called Rogozin’s interpretation “absolute nonsense–a figment of their imagination.” He pointed out that most of the deputies were not supporters but opponents of U.S. and British policy in Iraq.

Lord Judd cited what he called “a strong feeling of exasperation” in the Parliamentary Assembly over the gap between the huge number of kidnappings and other human rights violations in Chechnya on the one hand, and Russia’s efforts to solve them on the other. The number of investigations of such cases brought to a successful conclusion by the Russian legal system has been “laughably small,” he said.

“I don’t think Russia wants to be a pariah,” Lord Judd told Jamestown. He predicted that even if Russia is able to block the actual creation of an international tribunal, the mere fact of its being debated seriously will create additional pressure on the Kremlin. (It is most unlikely that the United Nations would launch such a tribunal because Russia could easily block it by using its veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.) Another possibility, raised by the Russian journalist Sukhova, is that the European Court of Human Rights might begin to consider not just a few, but “hundreds” of appeals from Chechens: “It would be hard to hold back such a flood.”

Dupuis stressed the personal leadership of German deputy Rudolf Bindig, who had worked closely with Lord Judd and who in effect has now inherited his role as the Parliamentary Assembly’s designated expert and spokesman on Chechnya (see Chechnya Weekly, April 1). He told Jamestown that Lord Judd had tried “in a way to be kind to the Russians,” to combine his criticisms on some issues with praise for even modest progress in other areas. But the Russian side’s refusal to accept any criticism led to an “accumulation” of wounded feelings among the West Europeans, he said. Rogozin’s “rudeness,” he told Jamestown, “did not help the Russians.”

Lord Judd told Jamestown that he still hopes that Russia will address human rights violations in Chechnya “through its own legal system,” but that “in the absence of that it may be necessary to have an external tribunal.” He added that he expected most West European governments to be “unhappy” with the Parliamentary Assembly’s vote, which will “now require them to take this issue seriously.”

Especially noteworthy, said Judd, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin “makes much of being the West’s partner in the struggle against militant Islam,” but at the same time “acts in Chechnya precisely in such a way as to strengthen the hand of militant Islam.”

The Russian delegates submitted a series of amendments designed to blunt the Bindig text, but every one of these amendments was rejected. It was clear from the debate that Judd’s and Bindig’s reports had had an impact: The official transcript cites a Swiss delegate as suggesting that “the Assembly needed a Russian delegation which did not behave in the old Soviet fashion of sending in the military and then denying that crimes against the civilian population had occurred.” A Hungarian delegate said that “as far as I can see, Moscow is unable to recognize that one can make peace with enemies but not with vassals.”

Itogi correspondent Sukhova reported Rogozin’s angry response in her April 3 article for the website Gazeta.ru. She quoted him as saying “We all know that there will be no tribunal. And the worst thing in politics is to look ridiculous. And you are ridiculous. Henceforth, we will discuss the Chechen issue at home and will condemn all those that are guilty, but without you.” Rogozin went on to declare that PACE delegations would no longer be admitted to monitor the situation in Chechnya.

Russia also threatened to cut off its financial contributions to the Council of Europe, which Rogozin said came to US$25 million annually, making Russia one of the Council’s “principal payers.” Sukhova, however, pointed out in her article that the Russians had already informed the PACE budget committee of this possibility on March 31-when the passage of such a strong measure on Chechnya seemed unlikely.

Sukhova noted that other Russian officials shared what she called Rogozin’s “fury.” Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky accused the Parliamentary Assembly of ignoring what he said was the Chechens’ overwhelming support for their new constitution as expressed in last month’s referendum. “The decision is politically harmful because it runs counter to prevailing new developments in Chechnya’s political situation after the referendum, which point to peace and stability,” he said. Russia’s deputy prosecutor general, Sergei Fridinsky, told the Interfax news agency that the April 2 vote constituted “blatant interference in Russia’s legal system.”

The most aggressive member of the Russian delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly was, as usual, the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He sarcastically told the western deputies present that he supported the creation of an international tribunal “so that all those who are guilty of kindling the conflict in Chechnya will find themselves in the dock, and we know that those gentlemen are now sitting in London, in Warsaw, and in other states. And they are present in this hall, too. You will all find yourselves in the dock some ten years from now if the tribunal is set up.”

For a complete transcript of the April 2 debate, including a videotape, see the Council of Europe website http://assembly.coe.int/