Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 43

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, told Interfax on November 22 that a meeting between a delegation from her group and Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov’s London-based emissary, Akhmed Zakaev, would not take place in Brussels the following day as planned because the delegation’s members had not received Belgian visas. The press attaché of Belgium’s embassy in Moscow, Philippe Benoit, told that the problem was strictly “technical” given that the delegation had only submitted their visa applications on the afternoon of November 18 and Belgium’s Foreign Ministry had not had time to process them.

However, Melnikova, who was to head the delegation, told Interfax that an official from the consular department of Belgium’s embassy in Moscow had told her “frankly that issuing visas to our delegation was a political matter” and that “a decision on this has to be made in Brussels.” In a separate interview published in Nezavisimaya gazeta on November 22, she quoted European Parliamentary Deputy Bart Staes, who was helping to set up the meeting, as saying that Belgian Interior Ministry officials had indicated they had been approached by “the Russian side,” which had expressed opposition to allowing Zakaev into Belgium. Likewise, the non-government organization Pax Christi International, which was also involved in arranging the talks, warned that the meeting might be scuttled as a result of pressure on Brussels from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Rosbalt reported on November 20. Daniel-Kohn Bendit, head of the European Parliament’s Group of the Greens, had sent a letter to Zakaev on November 19 officially inviting him to take part in negotiations with the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, Novaya gazeta wrote on November 22.

According to Novaya gazeta, the planned meeting was evidently “inconvenient” for Brussels, given that Belgian Foreign Minister Karl de Gucht, who assumed his post this summer, is planning to visit Moscow soon, as one of his first foreign visits. “De Gucht has made it clear to [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov that his foreign policy line, especially with regard to Chechnya, will be more pragmatic than that of his predecessor Louis Michel,” Aleksander Mineyev of Novaya gazeta wrote from Brussels. Indeed, Ekho Moskvy radio on November 20 quoted Belgian newspapers as saying that Akhmed Zakaev would be detained and deported back to Britain if he traveled to Brussels to meet with Melnikova’s delegation.

Melnikova said that despite the meeting’s cancellation, her organization would continue to work for peace in Chechnya. “In any case, we will think of ways to put an end to the bloodshed in Chechnya,” she told Interfax. “We have not given up hope of meeting with Maskhadov’s representatives.” But she also told Nezavisimaya gazeta that on November 19, the State Duma had ordered its committees on security and on public organizations to ask the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Justice Ministry to look into Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees’ alleged contacts with “Chechen separatists and disgraced oligarchs.”