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EU: Helsinki Summit May Reconsider Russian Aid

  • Ben Partridge

Western criticism of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya is becoming more intense following Russian warnings to civilians in Grozny that they must leave by Saturday or risk death. RFE/RL London correspondent Ben Partridge reports the government and the main opposition parties in the British House of Commons yesterday all joined in strong condemnation of the Russian military campaign. The debate included a warning from Britain's Foreign Secretary that the campaign may result in a halt to EU financial aid for Russia.

London, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says the Helsinki EU summit (Dec. 10-11) is expected to reconsider the future of an EU aid program to Russia if the Russian military proceeds with its ultimatum to intensify its bombing of Grozny this weekend.

Moscow has warned that all civilians in the Chechen capital must leave by Saturday or face the risk of death from artillery and air attacks -- a warning circulated by specially-printed leaflets.

Cook told a parliamentary debate in London late yesterday that if Moscow carries out its threat, leaders of the 15 EU countries are expected to reconsider the EU's TACIS program which provides financial aid to help modernize Russia's society and economy.

EU officials say that under the program, Russia has received some $1.3 billion since 1991 -- $150 million in 1999 alone.

Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen yesterday confirmed that EU leaders would discuss Chechnya in Helsinki, and could refuse to sign international agreements with Russia as a "political signal."

Cook, who has discussed the Chechnya situation with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said: "We cannot continue to assist Russia if Russia does not respect basic humanitarian norms."

His statement follows last night's protests from the U.S. and the EU over Russia's threat to destroy Grozny. Also yesterday, a Foreign Office minister, Keith Vaz, told Russian Ambassador Yuri Fokin of Britain's "alarm and dismay" about the campaign in Chechnya.

Cook said Britain understands that Russia has legitimate concerns about terrorism and violent crime in Chechnya, but could not understand how, in his words, "Russia imagines that it can root out terrorism by attacking the whole of a population."

"We appeal to Russia not to escalate its military campaign in a way which will further undermine its relations with the outside world and further damage its own national interests."

Cook said there must be thousands of civilians still sheltering in Grozny, many of whom are elderly and vulnerable, for whom escape by foot from the city in winter conditions is not practical.

The Russian military has promised safe passage out of the city for all those civilians wishing to leave by Saturday's deadline. But Cook urged Moscow to withdraw its demand, saying that to persist "would be clearly in breach of humanitarian obligations."

Asked if Russia should now be suspended from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, Cook said it is a "requirement of membership of the Council to observe standards of humanitarian behavior, and also to observe minority rights."

He said the Council of Europe will shortly consider a report by its special rapporteur who has just visited Chechnya.

Cook received all-party support in the parliamentary debate. Opposition Conservative party spokesman on foreign affairs, John Maples, said he shared Cook's concern over what he called "the very brutal tactics that the Russians are using in Chechnya." Maples added that "the deaths, destruction and suffering are on an unacceptable scale."

And Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the third-ranking opposition Liberal Democrats, said the outside world had been silent for too long in response to what he called "the medieval barbarism inflicted by the Russian government upon the citizens of Chechnya."

"Isn't it an outrage to issue an ultimatum involving a blanket threat with the prospect of a blanket attack on civilians, many of whom are too old, too ill and too frightened to escape? And if the Russians persist in this brutal treatment of innocent civilians in Chechnya, will the government consider all possible political, diplomatic and economic responses?"

Cook said the outside world must consider stronger ways of responding to the Chechnya crisis while stressing the need for continuing to help create a democratic and stable Russia.

Cook repudiated any claim of "parallelism" between the conduct of the Russian military in Chechnya, and the NATO bombing of Serb military targets during the Kosovo conflict.

"At least 300,000, probably more, Chechens have been rendered refugees and displaced people by the actions of the Russian military. In the case of Kosovo, 800,000 people were driven out of Kosovo, not by NATO, but by the forces of Belgrade...."

Cook spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last Friday when he pressed him for an early date for a visit to the region by the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Cook said he was pleased that Ivanov has since agreed that the visit could take place next week. But Cook said it is harder now to see positive prospects for the OSCE to establish a political process if the military violence escalates.