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Council of Europe Plans Chechnya Hearings

Strasbourg, France, June 28 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe said today it will invite all parties to the Chechen conflict to come to Strasbourg, France in September for closed-door hearings aimed at finding a peaceful solution.

Ernst Muehlemann, the Swiss chairman of a Council committee that visited Chechnya earlier this month, told the parliamentary assembly that he plans to travel to Moscow and Grozny in August to try to arrange the meeting between representatives of Russia, the Russian-backed Chechen government and separatist fighters.

The Council of Europe, the continent's oldest pro-democracy, human rights body, accepted Russia as its 39th member at the end of February despite concerns about its human rights record and the war in Chechnya. Although the Council acts mainly by moral suasion, nearly all democratic countries, including Russia, have been eager to gain its seal of approval. Many see the Council as a "gateway" organization that may lead to acceptance in other western organizations such as the European Union.

The Council's parliamentary assembly -- made up of more than 500 members of parliaments in the 39 member countries -- held a debate on Chechnya this afternoon.

They heard a report from Muehlemann, who said prospects for stabilization of the situation in Chechnya have improved since the signing of a ceasefire at the end of May. But he said the situation is complicated by a fracturing of the separatist forces among factions that want complete independence, those who will accept autonomy within the Russian federation, and another 20 percent of Chechen fighters who are, in his word, "desperadoes" who act without orders.

David Atkinson, a British conservative MP, said that with the acceptance of Russia into the Council of Europe, Chechnya is, in his words, "no longer a problem for Russia alone, it has become a European problem." He said the proposed September hearing in Strasbourg could be what he called "a major contribution" to restoring peace in Chechnya. He said the Council should be prepared to pay the costs for the parties to the conflict to come to Strasbourg, so that no one will have an excuse for not accepting the invitation.

Per Stig Moeller, a conservative from Denmark, said the Chechen problem cannot be solved by military force but only by political dialogue. He recalled that one of the preconditions for Russia's membership in the Council was a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Chechnya. As he put it: "We do want Russia in the European family of democracies." But he said Russia must bring its house into democratic order.

Alicja Grzeskowiak, a Solidarity member from Poland, strongly defended the Chechen side as what she called "heroic independence fighters." She said they have the right to an independent state and rejected the label "separatist." As she put it: "They are not separatists, they never joined the Russian federation."

Nikolai Fyodorov, a member of Russia's Federation Council, also supported the Chechen cause. He said the right of people to self-determination should prevail over the right of a state to territorial integrity. Hallgrim Berg, a Norwegian conservative, called for a referendum to determine what kind of state Chechens actually want.

Vladimir Lukin, a member of the Yabloko faction in the Russian Duma, endorsed the idea of a hearing in Strasbourg, but urged that it be held behind closed doors. In his words: "A competition of eloquence in front of television cameras will not help anybody."