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Western Press Review: Chechnya Dominates OSCE

  • Anthony Georgieff
  • Don Hill

Prague, 19 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Just as Chechnya is dominating diplomacy at the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the conflict in the breakaway republic is also dominating commentary in the Western press today.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Heads of state and governments must find the right mixture between toughness and consideration

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung's commentator Stefan Kornelius says the West's concerted criticism of Russia at the OSCE was a dangerous game with high diplomatic stakes.

Writing from Istanbul, Kornelius says: "The days have gone when the OSCE was merely an arena for skirmishes between diplomatic connoisseurs. The war in Chechnya has, at the end of the century, driven a wedge through the organization."

The German commentator writes that most OSCE members consider themselves bound by the humanitarian and international-law norms of the organization and demanded that Russia also adhere to them. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for his part, needed to keep his diplomatic options open and still make bellicose points for the audiences at home, the commentator observes.

Here's how Kornelius describes the milieu: "Yeltsin's dramatic appearance and exit at the scene of the summit symbolized this tension. But at the same time it should not be overlooked that both sides did show some readiness to negotiate. Yeltsin demonstrated that there was to be no dealing with him on the issue of Chechnya. But he did not break off negotiations completely. The symbolism he used was designed for Russian domestic and armed forces consumption."

Kornelius says confrontation puts at risk the last international instrument that, in his words, "transcends the new demarcation lines of international security politics." As Kornelius puts it: "This is the dilemma that heads of state and governments face in their decision: anyone who takes open conflict too far will destroy the OSCE. Anyone wanting to retain a spark of hope and to exploit the significant recognized achievements of the organization must find the right mixture between toughness and consideration."

NEW YORK TIMES: Russians must realize that good will in the West is in their interest as well

The New York Times notes in an editorial that United States politicians have their own domestic audiences to play to and that President Yeltsin should take care not to go too far. In the words of the editorial: "While Russia's need to pursue terrorism is understandable, Mr. Yeltsin and his government should take note of [presidential candidate] George W. Bush and those in the Clinton administration who want to take a harsher line against Russia. Mr. Bush has suggested cutting off aid until Russia stops killing Chechen civilians. Such threats, aimed more at the American voters than at the international arena, sound better on the campaign trail than they would as policy. Aid to Russia is in America's own interest -- not only to provide help in dismantling Russia's nuclear weapons, but also to foster economic and civic stability in an emerging democracy."

The New York Times continues: "The Russians, however, must realize that good will in the West and especially in America is in their interest as well. The stream of refugees from Chechnya and the bombings in downtown Grozny are images the American people care about. In the long run, these cruelties add to American doubts, not simply about Chechnya but about the willingness of Russia's leaders to move away from the brutal methods of the past."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: The West cannot but condemn the use of disproportionate force

From Denmark, an editorial in Berlingske Tidende also questions whether Western leaders at the OSCE may not have overstepped on Chechnya. In the editorial's words: "Yeltsin's position [in walking out of the summit early] also has raised the serious question of whether the West, led by Clinton, has not gone a step too far in its requests to interfere in Chechnya."

But the newspaper answers that question with a "No." As the editorial puts it: "There should be no doubt about the attitude the West has assumed vis-a-vis terrorism. At the same time, it cannot but condemn the use of disproportionate force against tens of thousands of civilians. After it transpired that the Russians stood almost totally isolated in Istanbul, their delegation finally accepted what Moscow had rejected for a long time -- outside mediation in the Chechnya conflict via the OSCE. "

The editorial praised what it called "the unity of opinion expressed at the Istanbul summit."

GUARDIAN: If the trend intensifies, we all may pay for it

The Guardian, London, perceives the OSCE summit oppositely. The newspaper says Chechnya is a blight that is spreading geographically westward and philosophically into diplomacy. The Guardian's conclusion: "For the first time since the end of the Cold War, there are real signs that Russia may be breaking away from the fickle embrace of Western economic and political neo-liberalism. Men like [Prime Minster Vladimir] Putin, harnessing nationalism, fear, and prejudice, seem to promise a stronger, prouder, better future. It is the Chechens who presently are paying in blood for this illusion. But if the trend intensifies, we all may pay for it."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: No leader who needs to prove his strength can afford to stumble in public

At a distance, from Munich, another Sueddeutsche Zeitung commentator, Daniel Broessler, finds weakness in Yeltsin's demonstrations of strength. Broessler writes this: "Yeltsin used the [OSCE] meeting in Istanbul's Cirigan Palace as a stage for proving his strength and his fitness for office. No leader who needs to do that can afford to stumble in public -- but in Yeltsin's case, his day-to-day health is more than just a matter of diplomatic interest."

Broessler says that many in the world have come to see Yeltsin and Russia as symbols of each other -- bumbling and dangerous, weakened and crafty, tenacious and unpredictable. But Istanbul and the OSCE, the commentator writes, may be different. Broessler: "In contrast, his trip to Istanbul, which will probably be his last major public appearance before the Russian presidential elections next June, seems to have been a success, even though he left the summit early following widespread criticism of Russia's military operation in Chechnya. In a strong, steady voice, Yeltsin rejected the criticism and told the West it had no right to criticize Russia on its Chechen policies."