Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, and Hans Winkler, a junior Austrian foreign minister representing the current EU presidency, got the debate going with routine summaries of the situation.
Winkler noted that the Chechen conflict continues to cause instability in the whole region. He said the EU has "reservations" about the human rights situation and condemned the dire social conditions of the general population.
Ferrero-Waldner reiterated a long-standing EU demand that all perpetrators of abuses must be punished: "Although there appears to have been an improvement in the security situation in Chechnya, a culture of impunity remains. Reported cases of disappearances and torture should be fully investigated and the perpetrators, including members of the law-enforcement authorities, should be brought to justice."
The commissioner said that although last year's legislative elections in Chechnya had had "deficiencies" -- notably the lack of foreign observers -- the absence of violence was a positive sign. She said the EU hopes the polls will be a step toward stability and democracy.
New NGO Law
Both Winkler and Ferrero-Waldner said they were concerned over recently passed Russian legislation that will impose harsher conditions on the registration and operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia. The commissioner noted the law could affect humanitarian aid deliveries in the North Caucasus and said the EU will closely follow its implementation.
Both officials promised to raise EU concerns during meetings with Russian authorities, pointing to the next round of the regular human rights consultations between the two sides in March as a likely opportunity.
European Parliament deputies were quick to condemn the overly "diplomatic" language of both officials. A nonbinding resolution, which will put to the vote on 19 January, is likely to condemn EU attention to Russian human rights abuses and departures from the rule of law as "insufficient."
Britain's Richard Howitt, a socialist, was among a number of deputies to point out that the Russian NGO law has already come into effect -- to the clear detriment of NGOs.
"Can I begin by expressing deep regret that [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin yesterday reportedly signed the bill to control the nongovernmental organizations, coinciding with the decision of the Ingush Supreme Court to deny authorization to the U.K. charity The Center for Peace and Community Development [whose] Moscow representative [I talked to] this morning," Howitt said. "This is an organization that had been providing humanitarian aid to about 1,000 Chechen refugee children and [it] shows what a crackdown that bill represents."
The Ingush court is reportedly considering shutting down the operations of another NGO, the U.S.-based International Medical Corps.
Deputies also attacked the EU's relaxed attitude to the conditions in which elections were held. Bart Staes, a Belgian Green, said it was a "disgrace" to describe the elections as positive.
Tunne Kelam, an Estonian conservative, said the poles had only taken place "on paper" and that the results were invalidated by the abstention of most of the local population while thousands of Russian servicemen were allowed to vote.
Milan Horacek, a Green deputy from Germany, observed that NGOs -- now being forced out of the region -- are the only reliable source of information about the situation in Chechnya.
They and others demanded action from EU policy makers, instead of mere protest. The parliament itself has no direct say on EU foreign policy, although its debates serve as an important outlet for EU public opinion.
The Austrian minister Winkler insisted in his concluding remarks that "diplomatic language" provides the only possibility for the EU to be able to express its concerns.
Ferrero-Waldner came back to defend her interpretation of the elections. She said they had not been free and fair, but insisted there had been important progress: "For the first time they took place without violence in such a difficult environment. And local observers financed by the [European] Commission said there were some irregularities, but generally there was voter participation and that was certainly also higher than previously ever had been noticed, [at] 55 percent."
The commissioner also said the EU is right in looking at other measures while a political solution to the conflict remains elusive. She highlighted a planned EU social rehabilitation scheme, worth 20 million euros ($24.2 million), for the North Caucasus, saying one "essential reason" for instability is that people in the region lack jobs and income.