Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 18

Russia and Europe appear to be headed for a showdown of sorts tomorrow following a decision by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to consider suspending Moscow’s membership in PACE as punishment for the Russian government’s failure to end its bloody war in Chechnya. The decision follows a demand by the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP) that the issue of Moscow’s suspension be placed on the discussion for tomorrow’s PACE session. The Council of Europe, which is Europe’s foremost human rights body, has been among the harshest international critics of the Russian war in Chechnya. Despite its strong stance on the issue, however, observers have suggested that there is little chance PACE will actually move this week to suspend Russia’s membership. There was reportedly little support among other parties for the EPP proposal (AFP, January 25).

That last fact did not, however, deter Moscow from denouncing the decision to place the suspension issue on PACE’s agenda. In remarks to reporters on January 24, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reportedly blasted the decision and called on PACE lawmakers to work constructively with Moscow rather than “occupy themselves with sanctions of some sort.” Ivanov was joined by the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Yegor Stroev, who called the PACE decision an “open challenge to Russia” and suggested that it reflected both Western prejudices toward Russia and the West’s penchant for disregarding Russian interests (Russian agencies, January 24). Following a visit to Moscow by a Council of Europe delegation earlier this month, Ivanov had bluntly warned that those considering sanctions against Russia (over Chechnya) should not even bother coming to Moscow (see the Monitor, January 18).

Indeed, the visit by the Council of Europe delegation appeared to end in some confusion and has further focused attention on tomorrow’s PACE session. The European delegation, led by PACE chairman Lord David Russell-Johnston, arrived in Moscow on January 17 and, after what were apparently constructive talks with Russian leaders in Moscow, embarked on a fact-finding mission to the North Caucasus. Russian media then jumped on statements made by Russell-Johnston upon his return to Moscow from the Caucasus, suggesting that the visit had left the PACE chairman a changed man. A Russian television report, for example, said that Russell-Johnston’s views of the conflict had changed radically as a result of his visit to the Caucasus and suggested that he now opposed any leveling of sanctions against Russia or the suspension of Moscow’s membership in PACE (Russia TV, January 20). A Russian daily, meanwhile, described Russell-Johnston’s visit as a diplomatic breakthrough for Russia. It quoted extensive criticism of the Chechen rebel leadership voiced by the PACE chairman and said that Russell-Johnston had emphasized that the PACE delegation had no intention of recommending that Russia’s membership in the European human rights body be suspended (Vremya MN, January 21).

Those various Russian reports appeared to clash with at least one Western account of Russell-Johnston’s return to the Russian capital, which quoted him as saying that the PACE fact-finding mission had made it more likely that Russia might be suspended from the assembly. “Russia is in complete breach of the agreement she made when she joined the Council of Europe,” Russell-Johnston reportedly told a news conference (AP, January 20).

Indeed, a report of the PACE delegation’s visit to the Caucasus, posted on the Council of Europe’s web site, is harshly critical of Russian actions in Chechnya. Although it does direct some blame at the Chechen leadership, it concludes by repeating Western charges that Russia is using force “indiscriminately and disproportionately” in Chechnya, that “the human rights of the civilian population and the rules of international humanitarian law” are being seriously threatened there and that there can be no military solution to the conflict. It also describes the Russian crackdown in the Caucasus as a “cruel, savage war, for which civilians are paying the highest price,” and asserts that Djohar’s citizens “are entitled to enjoy the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights” (January 2000–The Electronic Newsletter of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly).

The Kremlin appears determined to avert a major clash with Europe this week over Chechnya. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin displayed uncharacteristic “flexibility” during talks on the subject with Russell-Johnston and other PACE delegation members during their recent visit to Moscow. He reportedly displayed a similar concern for European sensibilities in the text of a letter–one explaining Russian policy in Chechnya–sent to European Commission President Romano Prodi this week (Itar-Tass, January 25). Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, moreover, is being dispatched to Strasbourg to defend Russian behavior in the Caucasus during tomorrow’s session. It seems likely that he too will strive to appear as reasonable as possible–but without making any meaningful concessions to Western demands for an end to the fighting in Chechnya.

This is an important juncture for Russian-European relations. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini each visited Moscow last week for talks with Putin and other top Russian officials. Chechnya was undoubtedly near the top of their discussion agendas, but both men were probably in Moscow primarily to take the measure of Russia’s new acting president. Indeed, the change of leadership in Moscow is perhaps the Russian government’s biggest trump card in its current dealings with Europe over Chechnya. Reports in recent days have suggested that European leaders may be prepared to back off of their harsh criticism of the Chechnya campaign in order to cement ties with a man who they feel will be in power for some time to come in Moscow. This apparent easing of European pressure over Chechnya was probably a factor in the European Union’s decision earlier this week to forego leveling any new sanctions against Russia. It comes, unfortunately, as Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya grows in savagery, and at a time when the exertion of Western pressure on Russia is seemingly more important than ever.