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Russia: MEP Says Hunger Strike A 'Small Contribution' To Keep Chechnya In Spotlight

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Olivier Dupuis, a member of the European Parliament (MEP), today began the 15th day of a hunger strike intended to highlight the continuing plight of the conflict in Chechnya. In an interview with RFE/RL on 30 January, Dupuis spoke about the goals of his strike and his long-standing commitment to trying to improve the human rights situation in the breakaway Russian republic.

Brussels, 2 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A hunger strike is a drastic measure at the best of times. It seems particularly jolting in the normally quiet world of day-to-day EU politics -- especially when the person on strike is a member of the European Parliament and his reason is Russia's 4 1/2-year war in Chechnya.

The breakaway republic is an unfashionable cause in the EU, which is hoping to join forces with Russia as a geopolitical counterbalance to the United States. Moreover, the European Parliament has no say in shaping EU foreign policy.

But Dupuis has done more to keep Chechnya in the news than the rest of the EU put together. This is his second hunger strike for Chechnya. The first was staged two years ago and continued for 24 days.

"You have, since 1999 -- since the time when Putin arrived -- a decline in the respect of basic human rights. This is a serious situation [anywhere], but the difference in Chechnya is that it's a tragic situation."
On the 12th day (30 January) of his latest fast, Dupuis cut an unexpectedly lively figure. Traces of the long days without eating were visible on his face, but his mind was clear and rational and his energy seemingly undiminished. Dupuis, incidentally, allows himself three weak cappuccinos and vitamins every day, to augment a diet that is otherwise based only on water.

Talking to RFE/RL, Dupuis said that apart from drawing attention to the situation in Chechnya, his hunger strike has a number of more limited, concrete goals. "It's also a sign of very big disappointment," he said. "To be honest, I'm fed up. [This is] not, of course, about the global question [of Chechnya]. The global question is very difficult. [But] even on the small aspects of the question, beginning with the humanitarian approach, or [the] question of refugees, or [the] question of visas for high-ranking people from the government of [separatist leader Aslan] Maskhadov, we're facing -- not only myself, but many friends trying to struggle on the Chechen question -- we're facing on a daily basis bureaucratic obstacles. And we are really fed up with this."

Dupuis said the EU's inability to push even the slightest of improvements through is not befitting of a "great Europe trying to promote democracy and human rights." In the long run, Dupuis said, his actions are intended to put pressure on the EU and its member governments -- as well as countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and others -- to "stop the genocide of the Chechen people."

He says politicians are not alone to blame for the lack of interest in the issue. Although events in Chechnya are covered by the print media, many large and influential television networks tend to steer clear of the conflict.

His protest, Dupuis says, is a "small contribution" toward changing this. Some of his efforts are already bearing fruit, at least in the European Parliament. Dupuis says his attempts to promote a Chechen peace plan envisaging United Nations involvement -- a plan put forward by Maskhadov's separatist administration -- have won the support of nearly a quarter of the parliament's deputies. "The situation in the European Parliament is not bad -- I think it's much better than in the other institutions of the European Union," he said. "For example, on the peace plan of [the foreign minister of the pro-independence administration, Ilyas] Akhmadov, which is now officially supported by Maskhadov too -- to establish a UN provisional administration in Chechnya -- we have got the support of 145 MEPs, [out of a total of] 626."

Dupuis added that although not all 145 necessarily "think of Chechnya every day," all of them recognize that what is taking place there is not acceptable.

Dupuis is scathing, however, when it comes to the European Commission, tasked with carrying out most of the EU's common policies. He gives short shrift to Commissioner Poul Nielson, who -- as the person in charge of humanitarian aid -- Dupuis says should be most worried about Chechnya. Yet, he says Nielson was last there in early 2000.

Thousands of Chechen civilians, separatist fighters, and Russian troops have been killed since the beginning of Russia's second Chechen campaign in 1999, with reports of kidnapping, rape, extrajudicial killings, and other atrocities reported regularly.

Dupuis says the lack of action is "awful," considering the severity of the situation, which he describes as far worse than the bloodshed in either Bosnia or Kosovo, conflicts he says received far greater attention. The relative indifference on Chechnya he puts down to a general "lack of initiative" throughout the EU, and traces it to the energy-based partnership that he said the EU is trying to build with Russia. But he says he remains concerned about Russia, and that the situation in Chechnya is just the start.

"To be honest, on Russia, I'm trying to do other things, too. On Mr. [Aleksandr] Nikitin, for example, the famous ecological activist [who has taken the Russian government to the European Court of Human Rights for prosecuting him lengthily on ill-founded charges], and other cases like that. I'm trying to raise these questions with the [European] Commission and the Council [of Europe] too," he said. "I think you have a very serious situation in Russia. You have, since 1999 -- since the time when [President Vladimir] Putin arrived -- a decline in the respect of basic human rights. This is a serious situation [anywhere], but the difference in Chechnya is that it's a tragic situation."

Dupuis, who has repeatedly been denied Russian visas, has never visited Chechnya but says he receives most of his information on Chechnya from contacts with the unofficial administration of Aslan Maskhadov and scholars in France, Great Britain, and the United States.

What does Dupuis expect in the future? He does not rule out the possibility that the EU will change its policy on Russia. "If we really want democracy for Russia, Europe absolutely has to change its policy," he said. "I think the [road] is very long, longer than it was in 1999. It's urgent to change, but it is possible. Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia, that's for sure -- and the same [goes] for America."

Russia has often described its war in Chechnya as a matter of defending its territorial integrity. But as Dupuis put it, "the destruction of a country and its people is the exact opposite of 'integrity.'" The peace plan he supports calls for an international peacekeeping force to be placed in Chechnya, to provide safety and stability for the Chechen people and the security guarantees Russia needs to end its armed struggle.

Dupuis hopes to continue his hunger strike through 23 February, the anniversary of Josef Stalin's 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia. In the meantime, he hopes to see some results for his efforts. Dupuis is scheduled today to hold talks on rehabilitation plans for a group of Chechen children injured in the conflict -- something he has been pursuing for eight months. And he says he will continue to press for the lifting of visa restrictions on pro-independence Chechen officials like Maskhadov, and assurances that Chechen boys and young men have the freedom to pursue education rather than be forced into fighting.

At this stage, Dupuis says, any change is welcome. "I don't want to stop tomorrow," he said. "First, I do not think I will get a concrete and precise answer [to my questions by] tomorrow. I think we have accumulated so many [problems] that we have to begin to solve concrete issues. I do not, of course, have the ambition to solve the [entire] problem of Chechnya, but we have to begin [somewhere]."