Prague, 11 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe's chief decision-making body -- its Committee of Ministers -- is due to began debate last night on whether to suspend Russia's membership in the organization over its record in prosecuting the war in Chechnya.
The ministerial debate follows a decision by the Council's Parliamentary Assembly two months ago to suspend Russia's membership unless Moscow showed immediate improvement in its human-rights record in Chechnya. At the time, the assembly also temporarily suspended the voting privileges of Russian representatives in the chamber.
The Council of Europe is a consultative body that monitors the implementation of human rights and democratic standards in its 41 member states -- 17 of them from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Council has no power -- beyond its moral weight -- to enforce its resolutions. Since its founding half-a-century ago, no member has ever been suspended or expelled from the organization. So Russia's expulsion would be a major event.
But Council officials say Russia is unlikely to be expelled. Several member states, among them the Czech Republic, have said they will vote not to suspend Russia. They argue that it is better to keep Moscow in the group and attempt to influence the Russian government from the inside, rather than to isolate it.
The closed-door proceedings of the Committee of Ministers are due to last two days. Council of Europe spokewoman Henriette Girard told RFE/RL on Wednesday that a communique will be issued at the end of discussions on Thursday afternoon. But Girard said no final decision on Russia's status will likely be taken until the end of June -- just before the Committee of Minister's next scheduled meeting.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov -- who delivered a spirited defense of Russia's record before the Council of Europe two months ago -- returned to its headquarters in Strasbourg yesterday to lobby against suspension. Ivanov has repeatedly said that reports of Russian human-rights violations in the breakaway republic are lies propagated by separatists -- who the Kremlin brands "terrorists." Ivanov said Europe should be grateful to Russia for combating terrorism on its own territory, thereby preventing it from spreading further.
Independent human-rights reports based on hundreds of eyewitness accounts describe numerous acts of Russian military brutality against Chechen civilians, including the killing of scores of them. The wholesale destruction of the Chechen capital Grozny by Russian forces has shocked many visiting diplomats and humanitarian aid workers. So has the exodus of more than 200,000 destitute civilian refugees to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.