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Georgia: Council Of Europe Head 'Concerned' About Reports Of Russian Sanctions

(Council of Europe) PRAGUE, October 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It has been two weeks since Russia began to impose punitive measures against Georgia in response to Tbilisi's arrest of four suspected Russian spies. Should the West be doing more to protest what Tbilisi says are profound human rights violations on the part of Moscow? RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Salome Asatiani spoke to Terry Davis, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

RFE/RL: In voicing concern about the situation between Russia and Georgia, you have stated that ordinary citizens shouldn't have to pay the price for disagreements between their governments. But the sanctions imposed by Russia do just that -- they single out ordinary citizens simply because of their ethnicity. Why hasn't the Council of Europe been more critical of Russia?

Terry Davis: I must make the point that if people are illegally in Russia, then the authorities are entitled to send them out of the country. This happens in all of our member states. If people are illegally in the United Kingdom, for example, they are removed from the country. So there's nothing to be condemned about that. But I am concerned about stopping children from going to school, which has happened, in Georgia -- and it's alleged now that the same thing is taking place in Russia. And that does seem to me to be wrong, to interfere with a child's education. And also, of course, to stop people sending money to Georgia when they're working legally in Russia -- I think that is making individual people pay for disagreements between governments. And that I do not like.

RFE/RL: But this doesn't only concern illegal migrants. The sanctions also affect Russian citizens of Georgian descent.

Davis: I have heard these accusations. If people are in fact being harrassed because of their names, then this is also wrong. I do not like that; I don't think any of us like it. But I would not base my criticism of Russia simply on press reports; I would want to see some confirmed evidence that that is happening. If it is happening, then it is wrong.

RFE/RL: And you don't have any such evidence?

Davis: I have not received any evidence, no. I've only seen some press reports, and I'm old enough to know that it's wise not to believe everything that you read in newspapers.

RFE/RL: There are also sanctions that Russia has imposed against the Georgian state. Do you think it's acceptable for a member of the Council of Europe to behave in this manner toward another member-state?

Davis: This does happen in other situations. I've had complaints about the attitude of Turkey toward, I think, Armenia -- I think it was Armenians who complained to me. And I said then that this is an interstate argument, and occasionally you do get sanctions by one government against another. Obviously we need to take each case on its merit. I do regret when this happens, but it is the right of an independent, sovereign country. You must understand that Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia, are all sovereign, independent countries, and their relations are not governed by the Council of Europe.

RFE/RL: Russia has imposed sanctions without making clear what it is demanding of Georgia. What is the objective of these sanctions?

Davis: I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether President Putin and his administration have indicated to President Saakashvili and his administration what it is they expect the Georgians to do. Sometimes these things are not made public, so it's difficult for us to judge, isn't it?

But I repeat -- the Council of Europe is not a body like the European Union, where the people are engaged in a process of union and integration. This is not the same in the Council of Europe; this is an association of independent governments who have agreed to subject themselves to a court -- the European Court of Human Rights -- on the basis of the [European] Convention on Human Rights.

And if the Georgian government have some sort of complaint that is covered by the Convention on Human Rights, then I'm sure they'll present it to the European Court of Human Rights; that's what it's there for. But that is not to deal with a matter politically, that is to deal with it legally. I think that the situation we have between Georgia and Russia is a political situation.

RFE/RL: You say reports of things like expulsions and surname checks in schools are not yet confirmed. If these reports are eventually confirmed, can we expect the Council of Europe to make a political statement?

Davis: I never answer hypothetical questions which begin with the word "if."

RFE/RL: I'll put it this way, then. Are you expecting these reports to be confirmed?

Davis: I'm not expecting any reports to be confirmed. Often I read things in newspapers which are not confirmed. So I've already told you, I do not base my views on what I read or hear in the media.

RFE/RL: And you don't want to check what you read?

Davis: It's not my job to check what I read in newspapers.

RFE/RL: Even if it involves a gross violation of human rights?

Davis: Look, if there's a gross violation of human rights, I've already told you, then I would expect to receive the evidence. I would not expect to go looking for it. I'm not a policeman.

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask one final question, on Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. The region is due to hold an independence referendum on November 12. You have said in the past that the referendum is a waste of time and effort because no one is going to recognize the results. But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has said Kosovo might in fact become a precedent for breakaway regions on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Do you still think this referendum is a waste of time?

Davis: Yes, I think it is a waste of time. If Kosovo becomes an independent country, I think this is very important that this is not allowed to become a precedent for South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniester, Northern Cyprus, the Kurdish areas of Turkey, or the Chechen parts of Russia. I believe in the territorial integrity of all our member states -- that includes both Russia, and Georgia, and South Ossetia is part of Georgia.

Moscow And Tbilisi

Moscow And Tbilisi

Russian military hardware being withdrawn from a Russian base in Batumi, Georgia, in August 2005 (TASS)

WHAT COMES NEXT? Although Russia is unlikely to push an aggressive military response to the current tensions with Georgia, it has a number of economic, political, and diplomatic options at its disposal. Already on October 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned his inner circle to weigh Moscow's options... (more)


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MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.