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Russia: Council Of Europe Calls On Moscow To Improve Conduct In Chechnya

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

One year after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe restored Russia's voting rights in hopes that Moscow would take steps to improve its human rights record in Chechnya, the pan-European body yesterday concluded that progress has been insufficient. The Assembly now is calling on the Kremlin to allow permanent observers in the region, but human rights groups say even stronger measures are needed.

Prague, 24 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) reprimanded Russia yesterday over human rights violations and indiscriminate use of military force in its breakaway republic of Chechnya.

In spite of the strong criticism, however, the Strasbourg-based Assembly adopted a final resolution unlikely to satisfy human rights activists, who have in the past rebuked the body for lacking the political will to force Moscow into a more compliant policy toward Chechnya.

The document adopted yesterday says it is imperative to increase political efforts to end the conflict and notes that the general situation in Chechnya "has not improved enough to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights and rule of law by the population."

The Assembly called on Moscow to allow it to set up a joint permanent office with the European Union to monitor the situation in the North Caucasus. But it stopped short of adopting stronger measures advocated by human rights groups.

In remarks to RFE/RL's Russian Service, former Kremlin human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov -- the only Russian delegate who voiced concern about Moscow's policy in Chechnya yesterday -- made the following assessment: "With regard to this resolution, I would say that it contains all sorts of sound, but vaguely worded, criticisms [toward Russia]. But there is absolutely nothing in it that could indicate efforts to take effective measures [against human rights abuses]."

Kovalyov's remarks echoed previous criticism expressed by the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group. Earlier this week, on 22 January, this non-governmental organization said it expects no support from the Council of Europe in its campaign to denounce violence committed by Russian troops on Chechen civilians.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Memorial activist Oleg Orlov said that, in his view, PACE "does not want any conflict with Russia" and that, by moderating its criticism, "it wants to show that its work is having positive results."

A year ago, Memorial and other human rights watchdogs lambasted the Council of Europe for reinstating Russia's voting rights in its Parliamentary Assembly. Moscow's credentials had been suspended the year before over reports of military violence against Chechen civilians.

The decision to restore Russia's voting rights was made in hopes that it would foster a peaceful solution to the conflict and improve the human rights situation. Some of the non-Russian speakers in PACE who participated in the discussion that preceded yesterday's vote acknowledged their expectations had been unrealistic.

The rapporteur of the Assembly's committee on legal affairs and human rights, German Socialist Deputy Rudolf Bindig, pointed out that persistent abuses in Chechnya are violating the Council of Europe's human rights and democracy standards.

"We have to insist that a political process be put into motion, so that violations of human rights are finally exposed. We insist that those Russian officials who are responsible [for these abuses] stop what they are doing," Bindig said. "They can do so if they want. They are responsible. They agreed to certain obligations when they joined the Council of Europe."

Even the rapporteur of the Assembly's political affairs committee, Britain's Lord Frank Judd -- who last year was one of the fiercest advocates for the restoration of Russia's credentials -- blamed the Kremlin for lack of progress toward a peaceful settlement of the conflict and for failing to bring servicemen and officers suspected of gross human rights violations to justice.

"What is the general situation [in Chechnya]? I wish I could be more positive. Frankly, the situation is still far from reassuring. There is a long way to go. In the sphere of human rights, progress is frustratingly slow," Judd said. "There is still, in my mind, a failure to distinguish between initiating action to prosecute those responsible for unacceptable action and bringing such legal action to a conclusion. The number of cases itself is very small. The number of conclusions is depressingly slow."

Judd continued: "In the military sphere, there is still indiscriminate action, still disproportionate action, perhaps not on the scale of the past, but it still happens."

However, as he did last year, Judd said he opposes the idea of renewing sanctions against Russia because -- as he put it in his report to the assembly -- such a decision can be justified only by "a lack of willingness on behalf of a country to admit existing problems and to accept the Council of Europe's assistance in solving them."

Judd's conclusions sparked some controversy within the Assembly, notably among delegates who openly question the Kremlin's willingness to stop human rights abuses in Chechnya. Russian representative Kovalyov told RFE/RL that, in his view, the Council of Europe's policy "can only encourage the pseudo-humanism expressed by the Russian leaders." He added: "You see, the problem is that our [representatives] have learned how to speak the 'European way.' Before, they would make a great protest each time Russia was being criticized. But they have changed their defense system. They now say, 'Yes, you are right. There are problems [with regard to human rights], but look at how actively and effectively we are progressively solving this issue!'"

The Kremlin claims to have made substantial progress in improving the human rights situation in Chechnya. But in its latest report on Russia, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that the new military strategy announced in 2001 by President Vladimir Putin -- involving operations against specific Chechen leaders described as "terrorists" by the Kremlin -- "did not affect the conduct of Russian forces with regard to Chechen civilians."

The organization said it has evidence showing federal troops have continued to conduct large-scale "mop-up" operations and make arbitrary arrests of civilians. HRW also denounced ill treatment and torture it said are routinely imposed on detainees, as well as the kidnapping and murder of civilians.

Over the past 12 months, Chechen villagers have uncovered a number of mass graves containing the bodies of people last seen in Russian custody. The largest -- containing 51 corpses -- was found last February near the main Russian military base of Khankala, on the outskirts of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Addressing the PACE session yesterday, Kovalyov blamed his country's leaders for botching criminal investigations into the killings. As an example, Kovalyov mentioned an incident that occurred two years ago and that he said remains to be investigated: "In February 2000, in the village of Novye Adly, more than 50 residents were found dead after Russian troops had conducted a so-called 'clean-up' operation. The [subsequent] investigation went into a deadlock. Up until now, it has not been possible to find the suspects."

PACE delegates yesterday also noted very little progress has been made toward a peace settlement. On 24 September, in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing, Putin urged Chechen fighters to disarm and enter into negotiations with Moscow. He later mandated Vitkor Kazantsev, his envoy to the North Caucasus, to conduct talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representative, Akhmed Zakayev.

On 19 November, Kazantsev and Zakayev held consultations in Moscow and agreed on further talks, but they have not met again.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on 22 January, Zakayev said the November meeting produced no result because, in his words, the Kremlin had no concrete proposals: "When Putin mandated his representative to negotiate with us, we were hoping that he was sincerely committed to entering into a peace dialogue. At least this is what we thought. But the fact that the Russian side did not bring a single articulate proposal and that it has, since then, stepped up its aggressive policy toward [Chechen] civilians shows that the Russian president's [September] remarks were aimed at public opinions in the West, at making them believe that he was ready to find a political solution to the conflict. Perhaps he also hoping that [we] would interpret his statement as an ultimatum and ignore it?"

The Kremlin in mid-January said it is ready to resume talks with the separatists, provided they disarm first. But Zakayev made it clear the Chechen leadership will turn the offer down. He said separatist leaders are proposing that Russian military operations be suspended first and that each side appoint a commission to monitor the cease-fire. They are also demanding that Russia immediately stop all "mop-up" operations against Chechen towns and villages. Only then, Zakayev said, will it be possible to start talks.

"So far, the Russians have not responded to our proposals. On the contrary, they have increased their repression, conducting up to 13 or 14 punitive expeditions against villages in a single day, as they have acknowledged themselves," Zakayev said. "With all the violence perpetrated by this mob, how could we possibly talk about contacts, about negotiations?"

(Natalya Golitsyna and Andrei Babitsky of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)