Even as the jousting between Moscow and the West over Chechnya intensified in Istanbul, Russian officials in Moscow wrangled with the UN over international efforts to ease the plight of the more than 200,000 refugees estimated to have fled Chechnya. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata was in the Russian capital yesterday to press precisely those concerns on Moscow, then to proceed today on a fact-finding mission to the Caucasus. She appeared, however, to make little headway with top Russian officials. Following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Ogata said that she had tried “to convey [UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s] concern and understanding, his appreciation of the difficulty in controlling and tackling terrorism, the importance of caring for the civilian population.” Annan’s delicacy in formulating the problem was not returned. Russian Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu reportedly repeated to Ogata Moscow’s now standard claim that there is in fact “no humanitarian catastrophe” in the North Caucasus. Ivanov likewise described Ogata’s trip to the region as an opportunity to disabuse Western leaders of their misconceptions about the situation there. He charged that at present the West presents “terrorists–who are up to their elbows in blood–as victims” (AP, AFP, Russian agencies, November 17).
Ogata did appear to get one concession from Moscow, however. She will be allowed to visit a portion of Northern Chechnya under Russian control. The Kremlin had grudgingly allowed an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to visit Ingushetia last week, but had refused a request to observe refugee camps in Chechnya itself. Russian sources yesterday said that Ogata was likely to travel from Moscow to Mozdok, in North Ossetia. She will then travel on to visit a refugee camp in Ingushetia. While in Ingushetia, she will also hold talks with President Ruslan Aushev, who has emerged as a sharp critic of Russian policy in the North Caucasus. From Ingushetia she will fly by helicopter to an area of northern Chechnya controlled by federal forces (Itar-Tass, November 18).
The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, lashed out at another high-ranking UN official yesterday for critical remarks she had made earlier this week about Russia’s military operations in Chechnya. A Foreign Ministry statement accused UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson of having demonstrated a “lack of understanding” about the situation in the North Caucasus. And, in keeping with the Russian cover story that the international brouhaha over Chechnya is nothing more than a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting Moscow, the ministry statement said that Robinson’s comments had given “the impression that she is under the influence of forces which are putting pressure on Russia in connection with the events in the North Caucasus.” On November 16 Robinson had said that she was disturbed by “serious violations of human rights and of humanitarian law” in the Caucasus. She also called on Moscow to “take immediate measures to protect the civilian population” in Chechnya (AFP, Russian agencies, November 17).
The events of the past week or so underscore the extent to which Russia’s bloody crackdown in the Caucasus has undermined its standing in two of the international organizations whose status Moscow has most sought to enhance: the OSCE and the UN. Moscow has repeatedly argued (and will undoubtedly do so again today in Istanbul) that the OSCE–rather than NATO–should be vested with authority that would make it the supreme security organization in Europe. Russian leaders have likewise demanded that the UN be granted greater power to deal with conflicts around the globe. Moscow sees a more powerful UN as a possible counterweight to the United States and NATO. Russian leaders have by most accounts been willing to take the heat from abroad over Chechnya because of the enormous political dividends that the war has paid at home. What is unclear is how long those domestic dividends will continue to accumulate for the current Russian government, and whether Moscow’s actions in Chechnya will have any longer-term adverse impact on its international position.
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